Anarchy Rules

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grammar-nazi-metaThe worshippers bow their heads for a moment of quiet prayer. Suddenly the doors at the back of the sanctuary are flung wide and two young children go sprinting down the aisle, their voices loud enough to raise the dead. An embarrassed mom rushes in behind her offspring trying to corral them before they climb onto the stage. Finally seated on the front row, the children continue to squirm, throw books and insist on going to the bathroom. Several bathroom trips later, the service is finally over, and the mom and her brood make their way out, only to return next week and repeat the scene again.

Across town in the local department store, an angry child screams at his mother, demanding that she buy him a toy. The mother tries to gently console her son and explain why he doesn’t need it. In response the young boy swings his tiny fists at his mom and screams even louder. Finally the mother gives in if only to save face in such a public arena. Instantly the boy calms down. He has been pacified.

Youth who have no boundaries grow into adults without boundaries. Children are reared by “friends, electronic devices, televisions, movies, and peers” (Baer 8). As a result, children are becoming more disrespectful, self-centered and difficult to manage. As they enter adulthood, these same children find that they are ill-equipped for employment. They expect instant promotions and raises no matter what their performance might be, and they desire to be praised at every turn (Baer 9).

Many parents have tossed aside traditional child rearing in order to be a “friend” to their child rather than a guide. This ideology is terribly flawed. Children need boundaries in order to thrive. While they may be intellectually advanced for their age, emotionally they are not ready to tackle the hard problems of life. Boundaries should be non-threatening and help “build discipline, a sense of responsibility and self control” (“Set boundaries for your kids” 16). Ganderson writes about “the look” in his article. Most adults understand what this is. It is a nonverbal cue to a child that a boundary has been crossed. Consistent teaching at home is what allows this cue to be so effective. Parents who use it do not have to repeatedly ask a child to calm down or behave. The child knows!

In like fashion, students who grow up without grammar rules find themselves without self-control or the ability to adequately relate to the world around them: grammatical anarchy. Lack of grammatical instruction often “produces images of low education, sloppiness, uncaring for the audience, and/or unawareness of better language usage” (Petress 109). The solution to the current grammar debate is neither to capitulate to the latest fad nor to forego the teaching of grammar altogether, but it is to teach with sensitivity and precision. “Precision is defined as possessing exactitude; the opposite of precise is that which is vague, ‘close enough,’ somewhat ‘fuzzy,’ and perhaps ambiguous” (Petress 109). Just as discipline and boundaries are necessary for the healthy development of children, so is the study of grammar needed in order to create mature thinkers and writers who can effectually maneuver in a growing global economy.

Grammar has become both a bane and a banner to be waved. The atmosphere surrounding grammar today is clearly divided into two camps. There are those who shout that its downfall is imminent and others who fight vehemently to enforce every jot and tittle. There are the “linguistic freethinkers, who take an ‘anything goes’ approach” (“Farewell to Linguistics), and there are those like Mary Newton Bruder, The Grammar Lady, who spearhead campaigns to stop personal pronoun abuse. Bruder writes on her website, “If we don’t stop it [bad grammar] now, this travesty will become part of the standard language” (Hamilton 15).

The situation has grown worse with the age of technology. Thanks to the many influences from movies, radio, cell phones and the Internet, grammar has taken a beating. Teachers now question how to teach grammar and/or if it should be taught at all. In one issue of Time magazine, a satirical poem was published to illustrate the current mood towards English.

Better middle-class English we’ll teach in our schools,

And correct composition we’ll leave to the fools

Who are picayune, narrow. and nasty enough

To insist that their pupils must master such stuff. (Pooley)

With this attitude, it is no wonder that English teachers are raising their hands in frustration.

The English language is alive. It is evolving. New words are invented frequently. Jargon is defined as “a use of specific phrases and words by writers in a particular situation, profession or trade” (“Jargon”). In the field of law there are words like tenure, battery and statutes (“Jargon”). The medical field uses terms such as antihistamines and electroencephalographs. Rods and pistons can be found on cars, and cooks use a tagine, whisk and tureen.

Two major contributors in the grammar debate are globalization and technology. According to John Algeo, University of Georgia professor emeritus, “90 percent of the words in an unabridged dictionary are ‘loans’ from other tongues” (Pooley). One does not have to look very far to see that this is true. Words like ‘tomahawk’, ‘moccasin’ and ‘teepee’ were adopted into the English language from the Native Americans. The French influenced the language with ‘million’, ‘chauffeur’, ‘mirage’ and ‘pot-pourri.’ From Germany came ‘wieners’, ‘pretzels’ and ‘delicatessen.’ There are words from Italy, Spain, Greece, India, Japan and China as well as many other countries. As English becomes more commonplace around the world, language will continue to change.

Technology has not only created its own jargon, but it has also given us texting and instant messaging. Within this construct, grammar has possibly taken its most severe blow with the younger generations. John McWhorter suggests, “Texting is developing its own kind of grammar and conventions” (McWhorter). Some argue that texting isn’t writing at all. In fact, it is more akin to talking. Writing is slower and more deliberate, whereas texting is fast, short and hyphenated (McWhorter). In this new “language,” punctuation has taken on a different meaning. In many instances, punctuation is either completely deleted or overstated. When it is added, it has a very specific intonation. For example, “yeah” is positive with no attitude attached while “yeah.” has a certain finality to it. “Yeah!!!” is obviously a very exuberant interjection. Using abbreviations is another aspect of texting or textspeaking. Some of the most common abbreviations include “b/c” for because, “ttyl” (talk to you later) and “rofl” (rolling on the floor laughing). Complete books have even been written using nothing but textspeak. Just check out the young adult section at the nearest Barnes and Noble Bookstore!

Analyzing how these changes have come about and noting their impact on education is one of the first steps in discovering a possible solution to the quandary grammarians find themselves in. As previously mentioned, language is ever evolving. The difference today, and specifically in the last 20 years, is that the internet has sped up this process and made it much more noticeable (Kleinman). Not only are people connected around the world almost instantly, but they are also connected constantly. Even children in their early grade school years have access to technology. Parents buy cell phones for their children in order to keep in touch throughout the day. Schools use computers for lessons. And through it all, people are communicating more than ever before through the use of textspeak and leetspeak “in which some letters are replaced by numbers which stem from programming code” (Kleinman).

Students aren’t the only ones guilty of taking the easy way out where spelling and grammar are concerned. Adults have adopted some of these tendencies as well. In addition, “magazines, newspapers, greeting cards and advertisements all do it…” (Harshman).

Experience also plays a role in how people respond to a language. Betty Birner notes, “We all know a slightly different set of words and constructions, depending on our age, job, education level, region of the country, and so on.” While the language of America is English, there are many dialects and each one has its own set of rules. Robert Delaney, a reference associate at Long Island University, mapped out 24 distinct dialects in America. They range from the Pacific Northwest to New England Eastern and down to the Gullah and Gulf Southern. In the Louisiana dialect alone there are subcategories which incorporate Cajun French, Cajun English and a little Spanish (Wilson). With all of this diversity and influence, it is not surprising that the issue of how and when to teach grammar is under assault.

John McWhorter believes “there is no evidence that texting is ruining composition skills” (McWhorter). Some educators believe that students know the difference between textspeak and proper grammar. Students just need to be reminded of their context, and they will easily transition between the two styles. Others feel that grammar rules memorized at an early age were nothing more than “bits of folklore” handed down over centuries (Larson 130). Joseph Williams, University of Chicago professor of English and linguistics, asserts that most grammar rules are already dead or dying (Hamilton 15). The period or full stop is already on the wane (Bilefsky), and future projections predict that certain punctuation like the apostrophe will even be extinct in the next fifty years (Hamilton 15).

The effects of texting, however, are cropping up repeatedly in composition and English classes. “40% of teachers say that students use the unstructured form of English in their academic writing” (Awal 136). Not only are students omitting punctuation and abbreviating words, some even go to the extent of adding emoticons (representations of facial expression using characters from a keyboard) to their papers in order to convey certain meanings. While students can be reminded of the purpose of their writing and attempt to correct their grammar, the effects of texting are, non-the-less, wreaking havoc on overall performance. In the article “Effects of Internet Lingo on Student’s Academic Writing,” Awal says that students are not able to distinguish between formal and informal writing, and “there is a strong relationship between widespread mistakes in students’ academic writing and the over use of internet lingo.” She goes on to say that teachers have noticed not only a decline in literacy rates among youth, but that writing multi-page papers has become an arduous task (Awal, 130).

The solutions to the current situation might seem obvious: throw out traditional grammar instruction or enforce it more religiously than ever. These are two extremes that, if applied to parenting, could be interpreted as either neglect or abuse. Following this logic, a parent can either acquiesce to every whim a child has and potentially ruin him for life or instill rigid boundaries that breed resentment and/or fear. The answer lies somewhere between these two extremes. Educators can no more abandon grammar than they can force it upon their students. The reality is that students are now being compared and made to compete with contemporaries on a global scale (Levine 21). In this evolving market, it is imperative that they be prepared to meet all challenges thrown their way. This alone is reason enough to insist that the approach taken in education needs to change.

Grammar retention is a major concern among teachers. In a survey conducted by Ann Warner, Warner found that “by a margin of two to one, …students do not retain knowledge of grammar and much grammar teaching is a reteaching of concepts previously studied” (75). Analyzing the problem, or passing the buck, as far as retention is concerned, is a common practice among schools. If a student is performing poorly in High School, it is blamed on the Middle School. The Middle School in turn blames the Elementary school, and it claims the student was excelling when in attendance there. Perhaps the problem is not in the school, but in the learning ability of the student. Some studies show that high levels of formal operational thinking are needed in order to grasp the concepts of grammar, and few adolescents and adults reach this level. Because of this, it is suggested that grammar not be taught in the lower grades but instead be taught at the end of a student’s linguistic development (Warner 77).

The instruction of grammar in the educational setting is not to be “all ‘er nothin’.” Knowing that English is alive and evolving necessitates that the instructor be flexible, adjusting to the constant changes that technology and globalization bring. To deny the use of new words and phrases is to restrict creativity and individuality, and students need and deserve opportunities to express themselves within the classroom and elsewhere. Conversely, educators need not abandon grammatical boundaries. Without these guidelines students would live in linguistic anarchy.   There is a balance to be sought in the classroom. Learning activities should be purposeful and secure the learner’s attention (Ediger 74). The developmental ability of the child should also be taken into consideration. Too many times tradition dictates when and how a subject should be taught. If a child is not developmentally prepared to comprehend the intricacies of linguistics at an early age, it is best to teach it later in the educational process when those concepts can be more readily grasped.

Just as children thrive in a loving environment that provides them with safe boundaries, so do students who are in an atmosphere that guides them linguistically. The more adept children become at expressing themselves at a young age, the more able they will be to navigate the many complexities of an ever changing world. Technology need not be a bane. It too can be a tool to reach the masses.

The scene is the same. The reaction is different. The child knows what his limits are and is comfortable with them. The student knows that texting is a legitimate way to converse with friends, but he also knows that he has a foundation to build new concepts on, and he can relate them in a clear and concise manner which garners the attention of his peers.

 

Works Cited

Awal, Eshita. “Effects of Internet Lingo on Students’ Academic Writing.” ASA University Review, vol. 10, no. 1, January-June 2016, pp. 129-137.

Baer, Mike. “Parenting and Children: An Essay.” Annals of the American Psychotherapy Association, vol. 11, no. 1, 2008, pp. 8-9.

Bilefsky, Dan. “Period. Full Stop. Point. Whatever It’s Called, It’s Going Out of Style.” The New York Times, 9 June 2016, www.nytimes.com/2016/06/10/world/europe/period-full-stop-point-whatever-its-called-millennials-arent-using-it.html?_r=0. Accessed 31 January 2017.

Birner, Betty. “Is English Changing?” Linguistic Society of America, 2012, www.linguisticsociety.org/content/english-changing. Accessed 7 April 2017.

Ediger, Marlow. “Studying Grammar in the Technological Age.” Reading Improvement, vol. 53, no. 2, 2016, pp. 72-74.

“Farewell to Linguistics?” Wilson Quarterly, Summer 2001, vol. 25, no. 3, p. 96. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspxdirect=true&db=a9h&AN=4879093&site=ehost-live.

Granderson, LZ. “Permissive parents: Curb your brats.” CNN, 5 July 2011, http://edition.cnn.com/2011/OPINION/07/05/granderson.bratty.kids/index.html. Accessed 11 April 2016.

Hamilton, Kendall. “So I’m like, ‘who needs this grammar stuff?’” Newsweek, vol. 130, 16, 20 October 1997, p. 15.

Harshman, Marissa. “OMG! Textspeak in schoolwork ;-).” The Columbian, 6 March 2011, http://www.columbian.com/news/2011/mar/06/omg-textspeak-in-schoolwork/. Accessed 7 April 2017.
“Jargon.” Literary Devices, 2017, https://literarydevices.net/jargon/. Accessed 10 April 2017.

Kleinman, Zoe. “How the internet is changing language.” BBC News, 16 August 2010, http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-10971949. Accessed 30 March 2017.

Larson, Mark. “Watch your language: Teaching standard usage to resistant and reluctant learners.” English Journal, November 1996, pp. 129-135.

Levine, Arthur. “Teacher Education Must Respond to Changes in America.” Phi Delta Kappan, vol. 92, no. 2, 2010, pp. 19-24.

McWhorter, John. “Is Texting Killing the English Language?” TIME.com, 25 April 2013, http://ideas.time.com/2013/04/25/is-texting-killing-the-english-language/. Accessed 7 April 2017.

Petress, Ken. “The Value of Precise Language Usage.” Reading Improvement, vol. 43, 3, Fall 2006, pp. 109-110.

Pooley, Robert C. “Correct English for Modern Needs.” Clearing House, vol. 69, no. 2, Nov/Dec 1995, p. 83. EBSCOhost,search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=9602262841&site=ehost-live.

“Set boundaries for you kids.” Prevention India, January 2014, p. 16. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=93874050&site=ehost-live.

Warner, Ann L. “The Great Grammar Debate Once Again – with a Twist: If the Shoe No Longer Fits, Wear It Anyway?” English Journal, September 1993, pp. 75-80.

Wilson, Reid. “What dialect do you speak? A map of American English.” The Washington Post, 2 December 2013, http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/govbeat/wp/2013/12/02/what-dialect-to-do-you-speak-a-map-of-american-english/?utm_

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