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On grammar and style

April 22, 2011

Tell me if I’m alone here, in my possibly hopeless crusade. In my journalism classes, the biggest challenge is not to impart the basics of reporting, story structure or research. It is something that gnaws away at me, something I have long expected students to learn well before their college years: grammar.

Some students have learned it and some have not. And at college age, imparting the basics of grammar, along with AP style, to those who don’t know it is extremely challenging. Their bad habits are fully ingrained. For the student, it’s like learning a new language, since no one (except perhaps, the Queen of England, who is expected to uphold the language) actually speaks in perfectly grammatical sentences.

But what really gets to me is the social justice aspect of this problem. It’s a North American version of Bernard Shaw’s classic Pygmalion – a play that many have seen in its musical form, My Fair Lady. For those who have not had the pleasure, it’s the story of Eliza Doolittle, a Cockney flower girl in London, England, and Henry Higgins, an arrogant professor of phonetics. Higgins bets a friend that, given a few months to train her to speak like the Queen, he can pass off the bawling flower girl as a duchess. This he does, though there are a few fashion items and mannerisms that get worked on, too.

As the song from My Fair Lady goes, “This verbal class distinction by now should be antique.” And increasingly, I have observed, it is.

However, in my two years as a Canadian teaching at a liberal arts college in the United States, I have observed a remarkably similar phenomenon. As a text-dominated society, Americans seem to focus their verbal class distinction more on the written than the spoken word, though the latter is certainly important. The upshot is this: Those who can write clearly and grammatically, with access to a full and well-articulated vocabulary, are virtually assured of doing well in university, as well as in life.

And those who cannot? Their prospects are dim, unless perchance they excel in science and math. Given their educational background, however, this is also unlikely. Because the common element in most of their life stories is poorly funded public schools. And I mean really poorly funded, and getting worse as I write this, with legislatures finalizing their 2011 budgets by hacking more money from public education.

In my university classroom I see the results every day: students who can’t match a plural noun with a corresponding verb form, and don’t have the faintest idea what you mean when you point that out. Who have never heard of a pronoun matching its antecedent. Who can’t spot a word like “theirselves” as wrong on a grammar test. And who have tremendous difficulty expressing themselves coherently. I don’t need to ask what kind of previous schooling these students have had. By their writing ye shall know them, to paraphrase Canadian writer Margaret Laurence’s iconic character, Christie Logan, in The Diviners.

The converse, I would expect, is also true: Those who articulately express their thoughts and dreams, marshaling fine vocabularies to do their bidding, almost always attended private schools – or those in affluent suburbs where public schools are virtually private, since no one of modest income can afford to live there.

This is, in my opinion, the American way – or perhaps just the Ohio way, since I have not really had a chance to observe other places – of keeping people in their place. I would really like to hear from people in other places about this issue.

The disparities in funding of public schools in Ohio, where I now live, are so great that they have thrice been ruled unconstitutional. Yet despite being ordered to fix this problem by their Supreme Court, Ohioans can’t seem to figure out how to deliver equal funding to their public schools. It’s such a thorny problem. It requires long division!

Let me say right here that I know many Ohioans, and Americans elsewhere too, who disagree with the way public schools are now funded and are actively working to change it. A coalition of churches in the greater Cleveland area has just voted to address this as their top issue in the coming year. It is not something people are ignoring. It’s just something they haven’t been able to solve.

Meanwhile, I’ll continue giving grammar texts to college students who should have learned all this stuff in elementary school, and who find it extremely difficult to undo bad grammar habits as this age. I just tell them the story of Eliza Dolittle. She did it. So can they.  And it will change their lives.

Carrie Buchanan, PhD

Tim Russert Department of Communication and Theatre Arts

John Carroll University

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