I’ve been teaching English language, literature, and writing to ESL (English as a Second Language) students for about four years now. As much as I do love seeing my students grow and learn, having the freedom to take a chunk of time off this past fall (in order to work seriously on my writing projects) has been fantastic. But last week marked my return to the classroom after that much-needed hiatus, and I do have to say that it’s good to be back with my students.
One of the fun things about teaching learners of English is the fact that I get to spend a great deal of time talking about grammar. Okay, that’s not everyone’s idea of a good time, but I find the structure and usage of the English language quite fascinating. Growing up, I was never taught the rules of the English language until I was in middle school, and even then I promptly forgot the parts of the sentence I was made to diagram. I relied, as most Americans do, on what my ear suggested. Absorbed grammar one takes on from reading and listening is fine for many of us, so long as we’ve been exposed to correct patterns of usage.
But once I began to teach those learning the language, I found I needed to go back into the sometimes unwieldy logistics of English in order to adequately explain what the heck is going on with this wonderful–if undisciplined–language. I had to trace the logic of what my ear understood on an intuitive level. I find it odd that those born into the English language are taught so little about it in any formal way, and that those who have to labor to acquire the language end up having a better understanding of its behavior than native speakers do.
Most of us get by on intuitive usage alone, and the expediencies of texting (I make myself sound old and crotchety by bringing it up, I know) and our general acceptance of hastily dashed-off emails can circumvent many of the problems of convoluted English grammar anyway. And plenty of the “rules” of English are debatable stylistically; I certainly couldn’t care any less whether someone ends a sentence with a preposition or constructs a few passive phrases.
But lately, I notice more and more writers submitting sloppy work to both of the magazines I edit. I’m not one to toss a poem aside because of an innocent typo’s appearance on the page (goodness knows I’m not innocent when it comes to typos in my own work), but I’m surprised to see so many instances of “they’re” appearing when “their” would be the correct choice, or of modifiers arranged such that they cause the text to be either inscrutable or downright funny. I wonder why writers think they can become good craftsmen when they don’t understand their tools. Just as a chef needs to understand the Maillard reaction if she’s going to make a truly great steak rather than a merely good one, the writer needs to have a decent grip on the way language works.
My sense is that we see this odd problem because people want writing to be sexier than it is in reality. When I was younger, I thought poets did a lot of cigarette-smoking and beret-wearing, and that, once filled with all the glorious ennui of modern life, they would burst forth with Kerouac-like scrolls of spontaneous, unified, and finished production. I didn’t have a lot of room in my view for the compulsive editing, the time spent staring at notes scribbled too hastily, the extensive thesaurus-consultation, and the hard work and attention to my materials. I thought poetry was about expression, but I didn’t realize the craft was equally important.
I could draw some grand theme from this, of course, and state that it’s the new American way to expect instant gratification, but I won’t. It annoys me heavily when people draw such folksy, fatalistic conclusions from any negative observation. Instead, I offer a suggestion: let’s dust off the good old Elements of Style. Let’s use what’s useful for clarity of communication, and chuck what’s pedantic or contrived. Let’s pay attention to what we’re doing.
Now: cue the random dude finding a grammatical error in this post. And, go!