What’s Grammar Got To Do With It?

I am a self-proclaimed, and slightly hypocritical, Grammar Nazi. Nine years in public education will do that to a person – or at least to an English teacher such as me. That is not to say that I don’t ever make mistakes because I do. And frequently. Like that last sentence which began with a conjunction, did not include an independant clause, and reads as a fragment sentence. Now that I think about it, the sentence I just wrote is also a fragment. I think you get the point.

Despite my years as a professional grammarian, there are still things I do not understand. I am not sure what a verbal is. I have no clue what the nominative/objective case of a noun is. And while I am vaguely familiar with what a gerund, infinitive and prepositional phrase looks like, I have no idea how to write an adverb clause on command even though I’m sure I have used each of these skills thousands of times in my own writing. I know my parts of speech by definition and example but I cannot always explain exactly which is which or how they function in a lengthy and complex sentence. Sometimes I end my sentences with a preposition. Moreover, I frequently start sentences with a conjunction, but I tell my students it is because I am a professional and professionals get to break and bend the rules as they see fit to get their point across. Do not get me wrong. I can still diagram a sentence as long as it isn’t too long or complex, but in our daily writing, it is usually not so cut and dry or black and white.

The problem is that sometime between when I was in high school and when I became a teacher seven years later, someone somewhere published a study that suggested that teaching grammar with worksheets and diagramming was detrimental to the grammatical health of our students. The problem with the study, however, was that it failed to provide an alternate method. From there forward, teachers across the state decided to give up teaching grammar altogether and have spent the past decade blaming all of the lower grade teachers for their students’ lack of correct grammar skills. I must admit that I participated in this practice at first before trying to implement Mini-Lessons For Revision as a way of Teaching Grammar in Context. I even joined a grammar think-tank, a committee of teachers who sat around and discussed grammar instruction. Oh my, doesn’t that sound exciting? Our meetings produced no answers and we all returned back to our classrooms to either figure it out for ourselves or ignore it all together. My last year as a full-time educator though, I was a part of a team that was led by a worksheet fanatic and it was then that I realized how much my own knowledge had deteriorated over the years as I could not even create my own answer keys. If I had been graded, I would have failed the assignments over phrases and clauses and the difference between who and whom.

Despite my shortcomings however, I have always been told what a fantastic writer I am and I would love to think that is true. I am no Shakespeare (and let’s face it, if the conspiracy theories are true then Shakespeare is no Shakespeare either) but teachers, colleagues and friends have always praised my writing for its fluidity and its natural sounding prose. In academic circles, I have proven that I can knock out a 15-page research paper in a single sitting in near-perfect MLA format and still receive top marks.

I proved my paper prowess this past year at Texas A&M University in Commerce where I was taking graduate level English courses in medieval/renaissance literature, classical world literature, and *sigh* modern vampire literature (Yes, Twilight was on the reading list. Don’t judge me). I earned two As and one B but the B was because I had a difficult time in my world literature class understanding how Jose Luis Borges’ psychotic, LSD-imagined, Twilight Zone-esque vision of a library shaped like a honeycomb was supposed to be a metaphor for life. It also did not help that I could not sympathize with Anna Karenina’s “need” to cheat on her doting, faithful husband at the risk of becoming a social pariah and a suicidal train-wreck (literally). Despite my ability to analyze literature, I could not see how these “great” works had any bearing on the modern world and I failed to see how this was going to help me re-enter the job market. And after much consideration, I felt that it was time for me to focus more on a writing style that was modern, useful and professional and return to my roots in public relations and journalism.

Anna Karenina and I had one thing in common though. We both alienated people we cared about and became outcasts because of our crimes. While her crime was a bit more, uhm, carnal in nature, my crime was for being too anal-retentive. Over the years, my friends began to dread my opinions of their writing because of my tendency to “grade” them. It would not be so bad if they had asked me my opinion of their academic papers, but I was more focused on their MySpace, Facebook, and email content.

One of my colleagues, for example, is one of the most intelligent, beautiful, hardworking, and energetic people I know. But her emails and Facebook posts look like she either has a serious learning disability or possibly suffered a stroke in mid-sentence. My critique of her posts is irksome to her because she does not seem to understand why it matters. “It’s just Facebook,” she protests repeatedly. “It doesn’t matter how I spell.” What she doesn’t seem to realize is that it does matter. It matters even more when you consider she works in public relations for an educational center. What kind of message does it send to clients and colleagues when someone in such a position does not know or care about the correct usage of your/your’re or writes run-on sentences with no punctuation or capitalization? Grammar does matter because something as miniscule as that Facebook post or email can cause other professionals to doubt her professionalism at best and her competency at worse.

I have another friend/colleague who is a repeat offender of one of my biggest pet peeves in writing – the run-on fragment sentence. We’ve all seen that before where someone writes two incomplete sentences and somehow runs them together into one sentence because they seem to have forgotten what they were doing mid-sentence. Maybe they, too, suffered a stroke while writing. Then there are, of coursem those dozens of other colleagues who still seem to have no concept of the difference between their/there/they’re, your/your’re, where/wear, or any other homophone. I do not understand it. These have been drilled into our brains since elementary school but my friends are not alone as these are some of the most egregious errors in the English language.

What concerns me the most, however, is that these are not simply mistakes made in a casual email between friends. No, these mistakes are made in professional correspondence, presentations, formal business letters, and even in advertising campaigns and on clothing. Recently, Old Navy was in the news because their new line of collegiate graphic t-shirts said, “Lets Go Michigan!” for example. Do you see the mistake? If you noticed the lack of apostrophe in the word “lets” then you would be correct. If you missed it, then you are probably one of the people I am talking about. I thought about the dozens of marketing experts, fashion designers, consultants, and screen-printing employees a realized that at some point in the process, someone had to have noticed the mistake and decided to ignore it intentionally because they thought it didn’t matter. So when did we become so lax in our attention to detail as professionals? Business people in every industry really seem to think that it does not matter if they make such careless mistakes. How do you think grandma would feel in this example from one of my favorite books, Eats, Shoots and Leaves?

Yes, the comma makes a world of difference, especially to grandma who probably did not plan on being devoured by her cannabalistic grandchildren. That will teach her to knit ugly sweaters for Christmas and only send $5 for your birthday.

Another of my favorite sources for grammar humor is The Oatmeal. His humor is profane, twisted, and all kinds of wrong, but he gets his point across in ways that make grammar fun and memorable. Nevertheless, my point in all of this is just as simple although quite less profane and twisted. It is our job as professionals to be sticklers about grammar, not only to ensure that our audience perceives our message correctly, but also so we do not look like illiterate and incompetent morons. There are many other reasons, which can mostly be classified under one of those two general umbrellas, but those are the only two reasons that really matter. Isn’t that enough? If not, then you might be in the wrong profession.

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