But My English Teacher Said…

It’s a cold morning here in Heaven. The sand truck has been through town and improved the traction on the US Highway that happens to be my street. I wish they’d been through a lot sooner, like yesterday afternoon, but if wishes were horses etc.

Today is the big Christmas doings in my little town. Santa is bilocating in the bowling alley and the local hotel this morning. Following that, there is a Holiday Bazaar (craft fair). When dusk falls, there is a parade and then this evening a concert by a pretty famous (in Colorado) cowboy band at the auditorium build during the ‘3os by the WPA. It’s a panoply of diversions, an array of Christmas crafts, a deluge of delights.

Panoply is an English teacher kind of word, a word I’ve often read in student homework mixed in with “plethora”. Reading student essays, I could almost see the wheels in their minds turning, “How can I get an A?” and the thesauri on their computers burning up.

I know some English teacher had said to them, “Expand your vocabularies so you can express your ideas more clearly!” I know this because mine had said this to me. To some this advice translated into “Using big words will impress my teacher,” and to others it translated into, “OK, that’s a good idea.” I think the motivation depended, usually, on how much (and what) that student read for fun.

It was always cute to run across one of these words, and not all that easy to have to bring down the hatchet, “Dude, here’s the deal. When you write, you want to use words other people know.”

“But my English teacher said…”

23 thoughts on “But My English Teacher Said…

  1. I know I’m supposed to use words that are well known and used, but it hurts my heart to do it. I’ve been a “word nerd” all my life, and when I was a kid I used to read dictionaries for fun. I love words; I love the feel of them in my mind and my mouth. Long ago, my mom (who was a word nerd too) and I used to play together, talking like Dickensian characters taken from a rich panoply of lovely words and phrases that aren’t normally used any longer.

    Personally, I believe our beautiful English language has been dumbed down in recent decades. And I hate it! Hate it, I say!

  2. And don’t even get me started on the egregious spelling, grammar and punctuation mistakes I come across in some of the ebooks I read.

    In fact, I won’t give the time of day to books that use homonyms incorrectly (usually many times in the course of the same book). What, is it too hard to check, right on the computer where that person is supposedly sitting anyway, to find out what the correct spelling/meaning might be?

    Every curmudgeonly cell in my body notices this stuff, and if the school systems are at fault, I’d like to take them by the scruff of their necks and give them a good shake to get it though their wooden heads that English is a language that must be taught, just like French, or Spanish. And grammar is an integral part of any language…..

    Oh Lord, just gag me. I’m preaching to the converted, for heaven’s sake! But it’s a subject I feel strongly about, in case you hadn’t noticed.

    • I guess vocabulary choice depends on what a person wants from language — to me the important thing is that a person can MAKE a choice. As for grammar and stuff, the last year I was a teacher, I taught 6th grade grammar to college students, 3/4 of whom refused to learn it and didn’t realize they were IN that class because they were nearly aliterate. I think homonyms get mixed in when people rely too heavily on spellcheck and/or don’t know there is a difference between the two words (affect/effect). I’m just glad I’m not doing it any more. 🙂

      • Sixth grade grammar to college students – that’s simply appalling. What has gone wrong with modern school systems in North America? It’s not just an American phenomenon; we’ve the same problem in Canada too. Is it because too few young people read? Or because they don’t read books that are well written? Some of the YA literature I’ve looked through (self-published, admittedly) is appallingly bad. Even if the story idea is good, the poor quality of the language dooms it; and if this is the only thing kids are reading, then no wonder they can’t put sentences together correctly.

        I can’t even imagine how discouraging it must have been for you to try teaching these people, who weren’t even aware of their own language problems and, from what it sounds like, couldn’t care less. I’m glad you’re not doing it any more too, Martha!

      • I can’t speak for Canada because I don’t know the system, but down here, No Child Left Behind and the following “cure-all” test based curriculum took the joy of learning out of 90% of the students. I saw it slowly coming into my classrooms, but by the time I left, all of my students (except the home-schooled ones) had been through that system. They lacked curiosity, courage or interest. They viewed school as a hoop to jump and teachers as enemies. 😦 It was really sad and hard for me.

  3. I had to teach myself all that stuff. And then wonder if I was getting it right. I did learn enough to catch glaring errors in the newspaper. And on the nightly news. I was finally able to write fluently in broken English and profanity. I learned enough to get published. My high school friend took some of the fishing rags I’ve been published in to our old English teacher to show her. She gave up on me early on–no doubt thinking her teaching talents would be wasted on somebody destined for death row. But I fooled her.

  4. Everything Susannah said. Yes, yes, yes! I use the words I use because I like them, and I’m sure it’s one of the (many, many) reasons I’m such a failure as a blogger. But bugger that (another word I use because I like it and it expresses exactly what I want to say at the time). I’ll be dead sooner rather than later, and to hell with spending my final years messing with the thing I most enjoy for the PC notion of ‘using words other people know’. And besides, how will they ever ‘know’ any new words if nobody uses them?
    My biggest gripe is the apparent illiteracy of editors these days. The glaring blunders that make it into print online and on paper…
    The best I’ve seen was in a P D James novel, where someone collected the latest flyovers from his mailbox.

    • I dunno. The basic reason we have language is to communicate with other people. If I’m teaching a kid to communicate with customers and clients, I hope that kid learns to figure out how to reach those people or he’ll be out of business.

      I don’t think “using words other people know” is PC at all. I think it’s clarity, respect for my message and respect for others. I like to curse, but I’ve seen how it shocks people in my little town. I don’t have to fucking curse; I can make a choice not to when I know that the word “shit” or (good Heavens) “fuck” will cause someone’s brain to short out and obscure my message, destroy our conversation and possibly end a contact that is in all important respects good. I believe in a thing called “register.” I am almost impossible to offend with words (since I think they’re just words and people ascribe them shock factor etc.)

      I wrote Martin of Gfenn and when I got to the heavy revision stage, I consciously used Germanic words and tried hard not to use Latin or Greek based words. I can’t possibly write a book in German, but I could do that. The result for readers turned out to be amazing, especially for English speaking Swiss readers. That’s what I think a large vocabulary offers a person; the ability to choose words to better reach people.

    • I wish it had been frustrating. The word is demoralizing. The vast majority of them were rude, insulting, disrespectful and in college for the money. Out of a class of 25, 5 students passed the exit test and they didn’t even care. I even finally said to them, “I’m not here to be interesting, to entertain you or to understand you. I am here to see that you write well enough to take a fucking college class someday because you’re a long way from it.” Horrible thing. Never thought I’d speak to a class that way. One of my students — a young veteran who’d joined the service for an education when he got out, said, “Right on, teacher. I can’t believe you put up with it this long.”

      • I support free college for the worthy and motivated. NOT for just anyone who wants to delay having to go out and get a job. There have to be entrance standards else free college will BE high school, just without the standardized tests currently destroying education throughout this land.

        About the ONLY possible positive thing that might come out of this nauseating political year is that “no one left behind” may get dumped. That could only be an improvement.

  5. I got lucky. I was always writing, as soon as I could hold a pencil and form letters. My teachers all told me the same thing: write about things you know. Or pretend you are someone else and write as if you were them, living in their world. We were assigned “diaries” to be written by people from other times, places, and during historical events. And oddly, we were discouraged from using big words. I was told to not use a $20 word if a $5 word will do the job.

    Later, I learned that I should read it out loud and it should sound like normal speech … or I should rewrite it. That’s probably the influence of working in radio, but I did it even when I was writing technical stuff. I still do it, though not as “religiously” as I ought. And I only use big words for fun, sometimes because I like they way they roll around my mouth and swing stylishly off my tongue 🙂

    • There are so many philosophies about how language should be used. I got saturated with that debate in grad school; it was really the difference (though I didn’t know it) between the critic, the intellectual and the artist. I did not perceive the distinction between the three “types” that comprised grad school.

      As time passed and I read more writers writing about writing, particularly Hemingway in whose work it was easy to see the realization of his idea of language, I began to see language as a tool. That changed my whole perspective on it. I didn’t apply that awareness much to my own writing until 2010 when I was confronted with the fact that Martin of Gfenn was badly written and I didn’t know what to do. Then, dreaming of Truman Capote I got the point. Now I see language as a huge paint box of possibilities.

      It was clearly an evolving thing for me that I wasn’t always aware of. Teaching business communication also taught me a lot about language choices and the effect word choice could have on the way a message came across to another person. But without a pretty decent vocabulary, a person cannot choose.

  6. Do schools even teach grammar anymore? I know it was NOT taught when I was in school, not at any level including college. I learned it anyway, more or less, though I’m still unclear on some of the finer points. But it had been removed from the New York city school curriculum sometime in the early 1950s or late 1940s. I started first grade in 1952 and there was no grammar taught right up through high school, which I graduated in 1963.

    Not likely you going to see grammar taught when the teachers never learned it.

    • I had grammar in 6th grade, but I was in a private school so I don’t know about the rest of the world. I think a lot of people really learn grammar when they start taking a foreign language.

  7. I was schooled in the public system, in a small Quebec town that was primarily French Canadian. Our one English school offered classes from Grades 1 through 11 (which was graduation year when I went to school). There being no kindergarten classes at that time, I started school at the age of 6 in 1952.

    As soon as we could read and print, we were taught proper grammar. Throughout the school years, we were expected to be able to express ourselves (consistent with our grade level) by writing essays of various sorts in nearly all of our other classes (i.e., history, geography and so on). English literature was a compulsory subject, and we had long reading lists each year. We did A LOT of writing!

    Composition was a compulsory subject. We learned the vocabulary of grammar and punctuation (parts of speech and how they were to be used) and were tested regularly on that learning; memorized poetry so that we could stand up and deliver it when required; completed spelling tests given to keep us on our toes; and our compositions were judged not only on creativity and the ability to develop a theme, but on those basics that we were expected to know by heart and use correctly.

    Starting in Grade 3, we learned French the same way, and with the same expectation of eventual competence.

    By the time my children were in school in the late 70s, there were no longer classes geared specifically to spelling and grammar. It was supposed to somehow be transmitted by osmosis, I guess. Fortunately, all of them were (and are) voracious readers, and I filled in where I could to make the oddities of grammar accessible to them.

    But what a loss! Grammar is like building blocks; how can you build a piece of writing without these basic building blocks? And how can a language survive without a universal awareness of how to use it? Language, as Martha says, should be a huge paintbox of possibilities. Without basic grammar and spelling, that paintbox is much smaller and far less useful than it could be.

  8. The need for proper English instruction can’t be stressed strongly enough, and I offer the following true story as a case study in the affects of insufficient education in the topic…

    At work, an influential manager demanded that all written communication was to meet his standards. He made this demand as he cited “the dozens of confusing and unreadable emails that were being sent every day,” and that his intent was to bring clarity to the office. His standards included—but were not limited to—limiting word usage to those composed of merely one or two syllables, keeping sentences to a length of eight words or less (not including titles), and allowing just three sentences per paragraph (where each paragraph other than the first was to begin with a “bullet point” regardless if doing so was structurally correct or not).

    The hapless staff had no choice but to comply, and soon childishly-written emails were flowing around the office and to outside entities—much to the manager’s approval. It was apparent to all that the manager could speak English properly, but his understanding of grammar and punctuation was sorely lacking in written English. The cause of his substandard English abilities was particularly mystifying to all as he was raised in a middle class household by third-generation European-Americans, thus placing the reasonable expectation of English proficiency upon him.

    The forced installment of the new writing standards proved costly to the manager and resulted in nothing less than a tragic loss of face for him. However, the standards—or lack thereof— became an endless mother lode of comedy gold for office merry-makers. For months afterward, it seemed that every office-related joke featured one of the manager’s emails as the punchline. As time progressed, the manager himself became the main focus of cruel jokes by staff, customers, and vendors thanks to the widespread perception of incompetence his poor writing skills placed upon him. Sadly, he was eventually dismissed.

    • Even the most sophisticated scholars have idiotic opinions about what constitutes good writing. I had students enter my classes absolutely sure that a paragraph was three sentences long. They had no idea that the requirements of a good paragraph did not depend on arbitrary rules like that. It would be nice if it did, but it doesn’t. But I recently edited a dissertation for a friend who was getting a PhD in psychology. According to her the reviewers of her dissertation, a paragraph must be at least three sentences long. So, there’s idiocy everywhere and I am glad I’m out of it. 🙂 Thanks for stopping by!

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