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Wednesday, 28 March 2012 12:31

Forgotten but not gone — emphasizing grammar

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Fifteen years ago, when I was the temporary teacher of Latin at Tuscola High School in Waynesville, I was discussing different uses for the dative case when one of my brighter sophomores — he entered the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics the following year — raised his hand and plaintively said, “Mr. Minick, we haven’t really studied grammar since the fourth grade. Could you explain what you mean by an indirect object?”

Few teachers — or students, for that matter — would disagree that grammar and writing take a seat at the back of the academic bus these days. To study more than the basics of grammar — ”A noun is a person, place, or thing” — requires patience from the teacher and demands repetition and memorization from the student while good writing requires a massive amount of work from both. Ask any English or history teacher who still centers a class on writing about the weekends, and you will find a teacher who spends more than a few hours correcting papers.

We live in the age of communication, of email, twitter, and texting, yet as a number of online sites attest, poor communication skills in writing and grammar cost us hundreds of millions of dollars per year. Spelling errors, grammatical mistakes, and badly composed sentences result in missed meetings, mangled orders, mistaken shipments, and bad service.

Sometimes our failure to communicate costs more than money. A love letter composed by the semi-literate can ruin a match made in heaven. A badly written police report can bring a murderer’s freedom. Our military leaders and medical personnel are acutely aware that a word misused or a comma misplaced can bring about disaster and death. (This problem is not new. In his last communication to his subordinate, Captain Benteen, Gen. George Armstrong Custer of Little Bighorn fame sent a terse, confusing note which was delivered by a man who barely spoke English. Custer and his men may have ended up massacred because the general didn’t take an extra two minutes to put together a coherent summons).

Here is a simple and classic example of the importance of grammar. “Let’s eat, Grandma” is a straight-shooting sentence. We are hungry and wish to eat, and we want to encourage Grandma to do likewise. If we drop the comma, however, we proclaim “Let’s eat Grandma.” (You few young people who are reading this column on grammar should here be cautioned against dining on your elders. Historically, you and the younger set are regarded as much more tasty. See Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal.)

Fortunately, remedies for our grammatical dysfunctions abound. There are scores of grammar guides in print today. In recent years, Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation made the best-seller lists in Great Britain and the United States. With her witty stickler’s guide to the use of the apostrophe, the dash, and other marks of punctuation, Truss helped kick off our current interest in language and its usage by making readers more aware of the importance of grammar and the rules of writing. For a more classic, though by no means comprehensive, examination of such issues, Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style remains a central authority on usage.

The various editions of Writer’s Inc., employed in many of our schools, offers perhaps the most for the money in terms of grammar and usage. This book is accessible to students from middle school through college and would also make a fine addition to any office or home in which questions of grammar and punctuation recur. The examples used are clear and to the point. In addition, the book includes guides to writing various types of letters and emails, essays and papers, a strong glossary of literary terms, and a dozen other useful topics.

Mignon Fogarty’s Grammar Girl Presents the Ultimate Writing Guide for Students (ISBN 978-0-8050-8943-1, $19.99) is the new kid on the language block. Fogarty is the creator the online Grammar Girl, whose Quick and Dirty Tips on grammar have attracted the attention of millions seeking answers on everything from using commas in clauses to the test of when to use a colon. Though designed for students — Aardvark and Squiggly the Snail, Fogarty’s signature characters, appear in most of the examples — Grammar Girl’s Ultimate Writing Guide should appeal to a wide audience. The index is complete — I tested it by looking up the usage of “anymore,” and found a clear explanation — and the author follows a logical progression in her presentation, going from the basic definitions of the parts of speech to the writing of papers. For a student going into high school or college, for a secretary who runs smack into grammatical thickets, and for anyone interested in a witty, practical approach to our language, Grammar Girl’s Writing Guide should prove a valuable tool.

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Stephen Hunter’s Soft Target (978-1-4391-3870-0, $26.99), which continues the Bob Lee Swagger story, this time with progeny Ray Cruz trapped in Minnesota’s America, the Mall with a group of terrorists bent on killing as many Christmas shoppers as it can take with them, lacks some of the punch and depth of the earlier Swagger novels. Parts of the novel — this is becoming a trademark in the suspense genre — don’t even make a whole lot of sense. Why, for example, would a local imam team up with a young psychotic from white suburbia? How could this crazy white nihilist get the devotees of Allah to follow him?

Readers of Hunter’s stories probably won’t care too much about these questions. The mayhem of the fighting and the expertise shown by Hunter in regard to weapons and tactics will doubtless blind many of his fans to the weakness of the story. Soft Target does offer one additional virtue. The weakness of the police chief in the story serves as a reminder that to placate terrorists and to wave the olive branch of appeasement is simply to ask for more terror.

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