For those of you who have not followed the blog explosion, self-published author Jacqueline Howett has been busy imploding in the blog comments of a reviewer who pointed out the grammatical errors in her text. Many people have commented on the obviously destructive behavior of flaming reviewers. However, in some fora the discussion has moved onto the subject of the grammatical errors themselves.
Howett, author of sentences such as “Don and Katy watched hypnotically Gino place more coffees out at another table with supreme balance,” is adamant that there is nothing grammatically wrong with her prose. Obviously, she’s wrong.
Ann Leckie writes (and I agree with her):
Sometimes, when I read a sub that’s got sentences in it like this, I think, “Did this person write this sentence, and then say to themselves Yes, that’s it, that’s exactly how it ought to be, that sentence is good enough to be published in “My Life’s Ambition Is To Appear Here” magazine? Really?” I’m never sure if the subber thought those sentences were the bees knees, or whether they just figured “Eh, good enough,” when it wasn’t, or what.
The author’s insistence suggests to me that at least for some percentage of subbers, the answer is, “They see nothing wrong with those sentences.”
I’m quite happy to lay this at the feet of the pomposity of the kind of writer who would flame her reviewers. Others, however, want to diagnose this as part of a larger, pernicious social problem. In Ann Leckie’s comments, shalanna writes:
Unfortunately, the trend today is to reject people who write properly and to accept people who write incoherently. Punctuation is constantly under attack (not just “evolving,” but going out the door.) Prepare yourself for a whole lot more like her, and a lot fewer of the rest of us. We’re fossils, and THEY WILL SHOW US. *sigh*
The problem, apparently, isn’t just with publishers (who apparently… love grammatical incoherence…?) but also the educational system:
The author in question behaves much as she did in school, methinks–most students now, when given a poor grade, go over the teacher’s head and get it changed. Or they take their parents in and get it changed by some other higher-up who wants to keep the peace. She has never been corrected (or at least it never stuck), so why should she “take it” from you now? She’s perfect, and YOU can go stick it. So there.
In comments on Scalzi’s blog, Matthew Hughes agrees:
the author’s response — that she saw nothing wrong with her hobbledehoy syntax — illustrates a problem that I see as a sometime paid critiquer of would-be authors’ prose: the great majority of today’s adults have never been taught proper grammar and syntax, because their teachers themselves were never taught how to write well. For decades now, school children have been encouraged, above all, to express themselves. Imposing on that self-expression the rules that would make it more comprehensible to the reader has been deemed detrimental to the child’s creativity and self-esteem.
So now we have the phenomenon of the self-published author who produces clunky sentences whose meaning the reader has to puzzle out. When the clunkiness of Ms Howett’s prose is pointed out, she cannot see the problem — what she wrote makes perfect sense to her, after all — but she certainly resents the assault on her self-esteem.
I don’t know what we do about this. Short of a revolution — or, more accurately, a counterrevolution — in the classroom, it seems we must now slide into an era of ever-increasing fuzziness of speech and writing, leading inevitably to ever-increasing fuzziness of thought.
Mythago asks Matthew, “how many ‘decades’ and where, precisely, are schoolchildren being taught spelling and grammar are unimportant next to Free Expression? I’m always curious when the Good Old Days cutoff is.” Ann asks, similarly, “When was this golden age when elementary school English teachers were paragons of grammatical discipline, burning proper English (and there’s a whole other debate!) into the hearts and minds of their students, who went forth and spoke in flawless prose?”
Since you ask: two decades ago, in British Columbia, when my wife and I went to our kids’ elementary school’s open house and saw compositions by grade five and six students up on the wall. They were full of uncorrected grammatical errors. When we asked the teacher why she didn’t have the kids correct their mistakes before they were put up for (presumably) praise, we were told that formal grammatical rules were less important than encouraging free expression and sustaining the students’ self esteem.
That’s from my own experience. Now, working by inference, the huge number of supposedly educated people who say “between you and I” and don’t know how or when to use “whom” tells me that basic grammar is no longer taught.
Matthew Hughes and Shalanna would find a lot of historical support for their positions, but unfortunately, no one seems able to agree when the “Good Old Days” cutoff is. For Hesiod, it’s somewhere before 800 B.C:
When I was a boy, we were taught to be discreet and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly wise and impatient of restraint.
For Tacitus, it’s 900 years later:
Nowadays… our children are handed over at their birth to some little Greek serving maid, with a male slave, who may be anyone, to help her.. it is from the foolish tittle-tattle of such persons that the children receive their first impressions, while their minds are still pliant and unformed… And the parents themselves make no effort to train their little ones in goodness and self-control; they grow up in an atmosphere or laxity and pertness, in which they come gradually to lose all sense of shame, and respect both for themselves and for other people.
Steve, from the internet, provided a link to a language log article articulating yet more opinions on when the Doom of Grammar fell upon us.
Interestingly, several commenters at Whatever and elsewhere have pointed out that Ms. Howett’s grammar school education appears to have occurred significantly after the Roman doom but significantly before the American one. It’s unclear how, having been schooled decades before the 1980s, Ms. Howett is nevertheless representative of the educational downfall that apparently occurred at that time.
The evidence-free assertion that we’re all going to hell in a bad-grammar handbasket grates for a number of reasons. Most obviously, the bizarre claims it suggests–everything from the idea that editors actively choose work with poor grammar to the belief that the poor grammar of a woman educated during the time period lauded for its grammatical accuracy nevertheless represents the superiority of that system over the grammatical indecency that followed.
As mythago observes, complaints about the good old days–from the Romans to Clark Welton–follow a generally predictable pattern. When was this golden age of grammatical discipline? “Why, that would be our generation, or perhaps our parents’ generation if we’re really trying to doom-and-gloom it up.”
But as annoying as those things are, what really bothers me is the classism and erasure inherent in the assumption that grammatical education was superior in the past. Whose grammatical education? Whose past?
Matthew Hughes writes that, “Forty-five years ago, when I started university, there were no remedial classes for the semiliterate.”
That’s supposed to be, what? A good thing? I’m supposed to be a fan of cutting off some portion of ESL students? Students with learning disabilities? Students who weren’t indoctrinated in “proper” white middle to upper class dialect/grammar at home and thus had a much harder learning task in school while simultaneously being disadvantaged by an educational culture structured for middle class white folks? Heck, I’m supposed to be a fan of cutting off students who just need extra help?
I tutored the “semiliterate” when I was in college. A few of them were kind of jerks. Some were very intelligent, but suffered from intense linguistic barriers, particularly those people whose first languages weren’t Indo-European. Some, despite their aptitude, had received intermittent education. Some came from school systems serving disadvantaged populations where resources were diverted away from average students in order to serve emergency needs, leaving us with students who were perfectly competent in some subjects while never before having been asked to write an essay.
I expect Matthew Hughes doesn’t want me to be a fan of excluding these students. I expect that his claim is that they didn’t exist, or at least not in significant numbers. There didn’t need to be classes that served them because they weren’t a significant population.
In one way he’s right–there may have been a time when such students did not comprise a significant portion of the college population. But that’s not because they didn’t exist. Students newly learning English, poor students, and ill-served students did exist 45 years ago or 100 years ago or however far back we wish to look for the golden age of education. But without resources for the “semiliterate,” what do you think happened to them? Not college.
I started my college education at an elite private school well-known for attracting excellent liberal arts students and placing an unusual emphasis on writing. Students came from the top ranks of high schools across the country. Nevertheless, I was one of only two students in my freshman class whose essay skills were deemed competent on entrance.
Sure, maybe that means my generation just sucks. I remember there being murmuring about that at the time, some from teachers, some probably from an ego-drunk me. Even elite students can’t even write an essay! What’s happening to education?
But if I sit back a minute and think about it, the argument falls apart. Both my parents are academically successful baby boomers who cut their teeth on sentence diagramming. I’ve edited their papers since high school. Like my peers, they are non-representatively high quality students. Yet I have no reason to believe they would have fared any better than my freshman classmates.
A generation before that, my ancestors were the kind of people who died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. I doubt they were beacons of grammatical excellence. My immigrant great-grandfather (who worked in a garment factory) never learned English. Maybe these days, he or his grammatically imperfect children would get to take a remedial college course to address their “semiliteracy.” Forgive me if I don’t wish to return to the days when such remedial courses did not exist. Assuming those days aren’t a figment of the imagination (a subject on which there appears to be some debate), they are also the days when the majority of immigrants, poor people and others who didn’t meet the class and linguistic expectations of the ivory tower never got to enter it.
I’m being hard on Shalanna and Matthew Hughes. I realize that. I don’t mean this as a personal attack on them–I’m sure they’re both great people–but as a vehement disagreement with their arguments.
I also don’t mean to imply Shalanna and Matthew Hughes are the only people who hold these beliefs. Obviously, they’re extremely common, with quotes I’ve seen going back to the Romans. There are probably extant quotes from further back. I’ve definitely been involved in internet arguments with other people expressing similar opinions. I could probably find other people expressing similar opinions by just looking at blog threads about Ms. Howett. Their comments aren’t especially egregious. They didn’t say anything that particularly merits being drawn out as examples. It’s just that theirs were the comments that put the straw on my discursive back. And as I started typing this rant in the comments of Scalzi’s blog, I realized that what I had to say was broader than a blog comment.
So to the extent this reads as a reply to Shalanna and Matthew Hughes, that’s because it began as one. I hope it addresses larger points as well.
At heart, I want to interrogate the assumptions we make about who counts when we’re comparing today’s students to the students of yesteryear. I remain unconvinced that there has actually been any noticeable grammatical decay in the student population. But whether or not there has, it seems necessary for us to bear in mind who got to participate in yesteryear’s educational system and who was historically excluded or considered less than because of factors that, yes, sometimes relate to “semiliteracy.”
With that, I’ll end on a song:
I don’t understand what’s wrong with these kids today!
Who can understand anything they say?
…Why can’t they be like we were,
Perfect in every way?
What’s the matter with kids today?