Monday, October 25, 2010

Rethinking Language Error

This came from Teaching God's World News -Oct 25, 2010 edition.

Rethinking Language Error

To grow up with English teachers in the house--two parents and a sister--is to love wrangling over language. We made a team sport of arguing minor points of grammar. Each of us had a specialty: Dad monitored pronoun-antecedent use; Mom addressed comma rules; Sis investigated mistakes with as-as and so-as. And I, I took the road less traveled by concerning possessives before gerunds.

Together we policed the punctuation, usage, spelling, and mechanics of much of the Southeast. No "Cantaloupe's $2" sign went unnoticed; no church bulletin was above critique.

When I became an English teacher myself, I graded papers with gusto--sure that my insightful marks would elicit grammatical perfection. Imagine my horror when my students actually made mistakes!

The alarming trend continued when I had children. My own progeny regularly committed that most egregious of grammar faults: misuse of lie/lay.

Then at some point, I realized (with the Holy Spirit's help, no doubt) that perhaps we all blunder. Perhaps we're all . . . um . . . human. It was life-changing.

Here's how I'm thinking now about language error: Mistakes can be a sign of growth. Listen as little children become aware of verb tenses. They unconsciously realize that the simple past is often formed by adding -ed, (kick/kicked, walk/walked). They absorb this information and incorporate it albeit sometimes with words that do not form their plurals that way. They are assessing, adapting, attempting--all higher-order thinking skills--yet adults often judge the result to be raw error. My favorite example involves a five-year-old who was asked what he thought happened when Jesus said, "Peace, be still." His answer? "Peace beed still," of course.

Nobody masters everything at once. I have a note at my desk from my (then) first-grade daughter. It reads

Dear, Mom
I ♥ you.
, Love
Margaret .S

Can you guess what her class was studying? Yep. Letter form and abbreviations. And while my first reaction might have been to grab my red pen, I took a deep breath and said, "Perfect capitalization! Flawless spacing! All the right punctuation marks!" And only later, "Let's talk about where punctuation marks go."

Recognize stylistic choices as valuable. Allow students to flex style muscle by bending a few "rules." Not every time, but sometimes, a good fragment fits the bill. The same with using passive voice, beginning a sentence with a conjunction, or ending it with a preposition. Just encourage students to communicate the message clearly and be prepared to justify departures from the grammatical straight and narrow.

So I'm relaxing (a bit) about grammar. Now all I have to work on is table manners.

-- Kim Stegall (editor and freelance writer for God's World News magazines, online biographies, and News Now articles.)

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