When I tell people what I do for a living they often express fear that I’ll correct their grammar. I generally don’t— we speak in first drafts, after all—unless they are fellow English majors.
I’d like to chalk it up as a form of love, but criticism is always hurtful, regardless of its disguise. For what it’s worth, it’s an opinion borrowed from my great-uncle Ron, who taught at ASU for thirty years. Since I’m the only person in my nuclear family to graduate from high school, Ron was an important role model— which is precisely why he always stunned me with grammar corrections. In the middle of a story about an exam or project, he’d interrupt with a tirade: “BEST, NOT BETTER! Don’t you understand your superlatives?! How can you possibly be an English major?! Do you want to sound like the hill people?!”
At the time, my go-to response would be to let salad hang out of the corner of my mouth as a symbol of my bruised pride. Now, I am able to look back on these as tuning moments: Ron was giving me immediate adjustments to prevent me from future embarrassment. Inadvertently, these moments helped me improve my verbal sparring (e.g. “I’m not sure how I’m doing as an English major, Ron. How does it feel to be a sociopath—er, sociologist?”)
Back to the matter at hand, I see now that great teachers exemplify precision and dedication to their craft. While it’s not fair to expect any teacher to omnisciently understand their subject, it is fair to expect them to know and be able to teach the core elements of it.
The reason I chose to write this blog is because I often meet English teachers, new and old, who defiantly declare that they hate grammar and thus, do not teach it. Imagine a math teacher who thought equations were a bore or a social studies teacher who thought maps insulted the classroom feng shui!
I can empathize with the perspective that grammar is so technical that it distracts from the poetry of language. I also firmly believe teachers should let their passions drive their instruction. Both of these perspectives lead me to believe it is right and fair to teach grammar in some units but not others, so long as grammar is taught. But no part of me can condone a teacher’s censorship of an essential language concept because it’s “unpleasant”. Not only is that unfair, it’s entitled. Ron’s joke about me sounding like a “hill person” has some truth— people who speak poorly are judged, stereotyped, and discredited. Their career choices are limited, their ethe carry little weight.
Take this example:
Last week I attended a surprise 89th birthday party. After the candles were blown out, the birthday girl’s son called guest services to request a corkscrew. The clerk responded, “we ain’t got none”. He repeated the sentence back to her; she repeated it back to him. He hung up the phone and roared in laughter, as did the room. Immediately everyone erupted in judgements about the clerk’s history, future, and dismal present. This was not a room of English majors. This wasn’t even entirely a room of college graduates. This was a room of people judging the identity and potential of a person by a single spoken sentence.
And this kind of thing happens all the time.
Time and time again, the National Institute of Health, as well as a number of other organizations and universities, has linked poor language and grammar with poverty. Universally, these studies cite that impoverished students come from environments too focused on survival to focus on nonessential reading and conversation. Now picture a student from such a background sitting in front of an English teacher who says, “Grammar is soooo boring! Let’s skip it!”. Where else will that student learn grammar if not at school?
If you’ve gotten this far, you’re either first-pumping your screen or imagining me with a curled lip and an opera-length cigarette holder. I’m kind of okay with both, but I hope you’ve considered the idea that there are non-negotiables in every core subject area.