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I have been ranting today on the subject of grammar. It's all Ann Leckie's fault. Or possibly Jacqueline Howett's.

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?"

Matthew replies:

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 their 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 "semi-literacy."

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?


( 17 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 30th, 2011 01:27 am (UTC)
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.

Additionally interestingly--to me, anyway--is the fact that Ms Howett appears to have been educated in the UK. Aside from the fact that she can't possibly be any sort of sign of The Problem With American (or Canadian) Education, there is, for me personally, the added touch that my mom's personal version of "these kids just aren't educated today" involved a semi-fetishization of British writing instruction. She was convinced that denizens of the British Isles received superior education when it came to writing.

Also--and I know I said this to you in IM, but it's worth saying here--how would anyone know what remedial classes were available if one didn't need them or hang with the folks who took advantage of such? I had no idea there was any such resource available where I went to school--also a fairly prestigious institution--but it turns out there was. I just never needed it. And I'm older than you are. In fact, I'm old enough to grouse about you kids being poorly educated and also hear grousing about how my generation didn't learn anything and can't write or speak.

Though, that same fairly prestigious institution required a basic E Comp class. No getting out of it. And it was the same freaking "here's how to write a five paragraph essay" class I took twice in high school--once as a freshman, and once in the AP version senior year. Freshman comp sure felt remedial to me. Technically, of course, it wasn't, and if you didn't see yourself as semi-literate, or think of the class as remedial, you wouldn't have thought you were a semi-literate student in a remedial class. If I'd only known I could look down on the students who actually found that class hard work....

Instead I just figured it was a class I had to take and some people were better at writing than others. More fool me! What a missed opportunity to feel smug and superior!
Mar. 30th, 2011 01:28 am (UTC)
Excellent points, Rachel--although I would point out that declining academic achievement is a very real problem in this country. I hasten to add, however, that the reasons for this are nowhere as simple as Mr. Hughes seems to think.

Anyway, whenever I catch someone wearing rose-tinted glasses, I'm reminded of the wisdom of Billy Joel: "The good old days weren't always good, and tomorrow ain't as bad as it seems."

Mar. 30th, 2011 01:47 am (UTC)
It's odd, because often people assume that their abilities are significant and unusual. In this case, people often assume that their abilities represent some basic skill set that anyone should have. Matthew Hughes is a professional writer, after all. Would that some NBA players made fun of a YouTube video of his awkward jumpshots.

Most people just don't end up highly literate—this wasn't true when literacy was the precinct of a privileged minority, and it's not true when some basic literacy (telling tuna for cats from tuna for people, reading a tabloid newspaper headline) is more common. Most people also don't end up able to fix a car engine, or able to run a marathon either.
Mar. 30th, 2011 02:16 am (UTC)
It's odd, because often people assume that their abilities are significant and unusual. In this case, people often assume that their abilities represent some basic skill set that anyone should have. Matthew Hughes is a professional writer, after all. Would that some NBA players made fun of a YouTube video of his awkward jumpshots.

But that would hardly be fair! Proper Basketball isn't a class marker--or at least, not in the direction that suits--and won't make you feel like you're better than the people who can't make that layup!
Mar. 31st, 2011 08:52 am (UTC)
Basketball skills are also not usually a basic barrier to entry into the job market. Now that everyone is supposed to have a BA in order to get even very unskilled jobs, and everyone else is supposed to have an MA in order to advance to even a kind of middling job, we have the very serious problem of either 1) giving advanced degrees to loads of people who cannot perform a task once considered foundational to even attempting said degrees, or 2) turning higher education into an extremely vicious class gatekeeper, which will disproportionately weed out people from lower SES backgrounds to begin with.

Which is why I have loads of Master's students who cannot write a paragraph with a main idea and 2-4 supporting sentences, which follow basic rules of grammar like subject/verb agreement and general usage/mechanics rules, and are contained within a larger paper that builds some sort of coherent point for the reader.
Mar. 30th, 2011 02:49 am (UTC)
Mostly just hear, hear, and also I adore your icon for this particular topic, hooray.
Mar. 30th, 2011 03:28 am (UTC)
Fwiw, “between you and I” has been around a long time.

It started with uneducated people who said "Jimmy and me went to town" -- who got educated to say "Jimmy and I went to town." But they weren't educated far enough to know when to say 'I' and when to say 'me.'
Mar. 30th, 2011 11:17 am (UTC)
Yeah, Ann Leckie said it was a hypercorrection, which is a really interesting term.

Mar. 30th, 2011 08:38 am (UTC)
It's interesting. At one time in the UK, language use was a signifier of social class. When an author showed a character using poor grammar and spelling, it usually signified that the person was working class e.g. a charwoman. (Or that it was written by a child, or by "a foreigner.") Nowadays, a lot of what I learned as "correct" only sounds stuffy and distant and old-fashioned. I'm constantly reaching for more colloquial phrasing in my stories.
Mar. 30th, 2011 11:18 am (UTC)
Do you think that language is no longer a signifier for social class in England? Or that the language that is a class signifier has changed? (Of course, I don't know; I just remember anthropologists always asserting that language was a signifier for social class in England. ;-) )
Mar. 31st, 2011 02:13 am (UTC)
Observations on lower-class English -- which do not quite answer the question of whether the upper class still speak differently.
Mar. 31st, 2011 06:30 pm (UTC)
Over-correction and over-formality was also used as a marker for class. See Bunter's and Miss Climpson's letters in the Wimsey novels.
Mar. 30th, 2011 06:43 pm (UTC)
The idea that professional editors and publishers, much less their readers, would be content with -- or (seriously?) actively seek out -- bad writing is frankly astounding, and a little insulting. It's a supposition built on a whole lot of anecdotal evidence and not much else. And in this particular case, it completely ignores the fact that Jacqueline Howett's prose was not edited. Perhaps she's simply a bad writer, or at least one incapable of recognizing and learning from her mistakes. Anyone who treats even a modestly negative review like that with a hearty "F' off!" certainly isn't behaving professionally. Such people do exist, regardless of what they (or their generation) might have been taught in school. No one generation has had a monopoly on people who can't write, any more than on people who can. I think it's foolish to view Howett as a symptom of anything greater than her own inability to craft well styled prose. And it's certainly wrongheaded to take it a step further and start bemoaning the lost of a non-existent golden age, much less blaming that loss on the existence of genuinely worthwhile programs that this supposed golden age lacked.
Mar. 31st, 2011 02:08 am (UTC)
Depends on what you mean by 'bad'. Some people called Rowling's style bad because it used a lot of adverbs -- and used some in speech tags. Others find that a marker for unpretentious, transparent action (cf L. Frank Baum and others of that era).

I can't imagine anyone being attracted by the Howett examples, though.
Mar. 31st, 2011 09:11 am (UTC)
I subjectively feel like writing has gotten much worse, but of course *I never graded anyone else's papers* before about eight years ago. I did sometimes see peer's work in peer critiques, or when friends asked for help, and I remember that as better, but I was also in Honors classes in high school and college, and gravitated toward similiarly-abled friends. I can say that I've read a great deal of peers' writing via Usenet and LJ over the years, which is obviously informal, but I don't spend much time reading badly-written informal writing as it pains me.

For me, bad writing is mostly a symptom of two things

1) overcrowded classes in middle and high school (where teachers didn't have time to grade lengthy assignments at all, or even short ones very closely, so little writing feedback ever happened)
2) lack of reading.

I never learned a thing from grammar classes. I can't diagram a sentence, can't tell you fancy parts of speech, nada. I don't know how to teach writing at all and am horrified by the very notion - it makes me poor at helping my students, frankly, because I can only unpack some of what they are failing to grasp when I respond to their writing. Some of it just eludes me. It's wrong and I don't know how to say why.

And this is because by the time I hit grammar/writing classes, I was reading at a college level and had been for some time. I internalized the "sound" of good prose without knowing what made it correct. I can't tell you why some of the gobbledygook my students produce doesn't work, but it doesn't, because I can "hear" it (and I have no more insight into how one reaches for good prose and comes up with the mashed potatoes many of them turn out than I do into how to help them get on the right track. I literally do not know how one puts an utterly wrong preposition in a prepositional phrase that is used hundreds of thousands of times a day in English print media.)

The best suggestion I know how to give students who are bad writers is to read a lot of formal writing. It's the only way I know of to help develop the "inner ear." I try suggesting "perhaps reading your paper out loud will help you catch errors" but I would bet $1000 not one student has ever taken that suggestion seriously.

I'm a product of the public schools, in a low-to-middling educational achievement state, but with SES and cultural advantages. I don't know how my peers learned to write, or if many of them even did. I do know that there is tremendous pressure to just pass students along who can't write, because we have too many students, too few resources, and half of them just want the advanced degree equivalent of vocational training anyway. Perhaps in the past literacy rates were similar to today's, but those achieving at or below the median weren't lined up for their sheepskins either.
Mar. 31st, 2011 06:28 pm (UTC)
At a quick glance from way, way outside the forest, I see...

1. Language does change, and some people will always call the changes 'wrong'.

2. Good writing survives the decades; bad seldom gets reprinted.

3. It's easier to get words into print (digital or paper) and we're more exposed to the result.

#3 might apply to Howett's blunders. And she may be influenced by other bad writing she's been exposed to.
Mar. 31st, 2011 09:03 pm (UTC)
I think the point of accessibility is one that cannot be stressed enough - if your standards are only high because you exclude anyone who does not meet them, they mean very little, and sooner or later you will run out of feeder streams.

(I want to say more, but it's forming up to be a substantial blogpost, so I shall refrain from doing so in your comments.)
( 17 comments — Leave a comment )