Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Prescriptive Grammar and Crapspeak

I had this discussion with a literacy professor of mine some time ago, and a recent article on the new language arts standards got me thinking about it again. Grammar. How to teach it. Why to teach it. And when to break the rules.

When I was student teaching, the kids were learning about predicates. It struck me that I hadn't even heard the phrases "simple predicate" or "complete predicate" since my own days in school. I ended up giving myself a quick refresher on the lingo of grammarians.

Now don't get me wrong. Improper (of lack of!) punctuation really bothers me, as do adults who mix up they're/their/there. I'm a little more forgiving in elementary school, obviously, that's what they're there for.

I think that some grammatical rules should be taught explicitly. But I prefer to teach grammar as much as possible through writing. If that means my students never learn the word predicate, is that so terrible?

Funny - when I mention teaching writing to my parents, they always, always thinking I'm talking about either the actual act of writing (printing/cursive) or grammar & spelling. I have to explain that I mean writing-as-in-putting-cohesive-thoughts-on-paper. That's interesting to me.

Anyway, I digress.

So. My big question. At what point is it acceptable to teach kids to break the rules? What if a piece of writing sacrifices conventional grammar at places for a stronger sense of voice?

This is not okay: using emoticons or Internet slang (PDF) in academic papers and appeals! I would cry if someone handed me a paper with "LOL" in it. A friend of mine calls this type of language use "crap-speak." Now, I'm not big on the acronyms, but I can understand the use of them for something like text messaging (especially while driving, apparently also known as "TWD"). I can even kind of see using them in online conversations, where the pace of discussion is often rapid, so the use of abbreviations becomes an attempt at maintaining a tempo that resembles actually speaking to the person. But this kind of slang should never make it into formal papers, college applications, and so on.

(Side note. I do use emoticons and either LOL/haha because I think it's a way of alleviating the communication problems that arise from not being able to see body language or hear voice tone. Sometimes the only way to identify teasing or sarcasm is from the presence of a winking emoticon. Also, if someone says something hilarious, I want them to know I'm laughing! And yes, people do fake laugh online - just as they do in person.)

So is the problem that kids aren't learning grammar and spelling at all? Must we resort to sentence diagramming again? (Which was always kind of fun in a brain-teaser kind of way, but which didn't really teach me anything lasting or meaningful about writing.)

Or is it that they aren't being taught when it's okay to use Internet slang, or when to use formal vs. less formal language? A kind of code switching, or something like it. It also strikes me that anyone using "LOL!!!" or "cuz" in a letter to a college appeal board has little concept of audience. Thinking about my own writing, I switch styles all the time. I think (hope?) most adults do this almost without thinking about it. I think this is why it's important to encourage breadth in the type of writing students do - letters to the editor, to politicians, to friends; book reports vs. reviews, journalistic writing, poetry writing, blogging and on and on. Then you build in the opportunity to discuss why (or if) it's okay to use slang in a letter to a friend but not to the President.

I was going to end this post with a dare to diagram some of Sarah Palin's sentences, but it appears someone has beaten me to it.

1 comment:

  1. Great, great post Hilary. The concept of audience and appropriateness. YES. I could go on and on. One of my closest friends is an English professor here where I teach, and In the last year she has taken to writing all her emails to me with indented paragraphs. No one does this anymore. How much more time does it require to hit that little tab button? But we've all dispensed with it.

    And what about proper salutations? I get emails from my students that are absent any formal Dear such and such. They just start right in with the message or if one is lucky a Hey. A little context would go a long way here.

    Btw :), I don't understand the sentence diagramming. I went to that Palin link and didn't get it. Admittedly, I didn't spend a lot of time there.

    Also, I used to be dead set against any LOL-ing etc. But I've since taken on a few of the ones I can stomach for the exact reasons that you describe. But if time is the issue, I still don't understand the current fetish of spellings out words phonetically like eezy instead of easy. I found this particularly annoying.

    Thanks for writing this and making me think about it.

    PS I've attempted to indent my paragraphs, but I doubt the blogger software will accept it.