Friends, Americans, countrymen, lend me your dictionaries!

Allow me to introduce myself. I am Nicole Palmby. You killed grammar. Prepare to die.

Okay, not really. But I needed some sort of introduction for my first post as sub-blogger of Dana’s Wonderful World of Snark. I am Nicole Palmby. And while you may not have killed grammar, it certainly is on its deathbed, and, as grammar is my mama, I plan to avenge its impending death.

I wrote this article late last week and edited it earlier this week, but I was a little reluctant to post it following Kaden‘s beautiful piece on grade inflation. I think, though, that what I have to say needs to be said, and I look forward to what you have to say about it, as well. Enjoy.


My current day gig is shaping the literary, grammatical, and writing minds of the future leaders of your local Target team.

Okay. Maybe that’s an unfair assumption. I could be shaping the minds of future political leaders. For example, I could be grading the vocabulary assignments of the next George W. Bush! Some days I feel like I am.

Regardless of the future endeavors of the attitude-wielding, SMS-ing, bleary-eyed nodes of apathy, I am entrusted to ensure each pile of flip-flops and hoodie is able to identify the theme of classic but boring novel title here> and write a competent, even if uninteresting, five-paragraph essay.

Anyone who knows me might smile and mutter some comment about the ease of my vocation–“You mean you get to talk about books and writing all day and get paid for it? Man! Your life is rough, innit?”–but let me assure you that getting paid to talk about books and writing is not what it once was.

There was a time during which schools valued the education gifted to their students (because education really is a gift) and parents cared about what their children were doing all day. It wasn’t so long ago that students went to school because they knew they had to, and the community was proud if it was the custodian of a “good district.”

It seems that while the days of the “good school districts” still exist (I teach in one), much of what makes a school “good” has morphed into something wholly unrecognizable.

It used to be that, upon graduation, students were not only capable of writing a five-paragraph essay, but an 8- to 10-page research paper in MLA style with print sources. They understood the mechanics of the English language. They were able to communicate their thoughts and ideas effectively within those mechanics.

However, I have received numerous essays this year completed–grudgingly, mind you–in what is known as text-speak. Yes, that’s right: English Honors students turned in formal essays that used the number 2 instead of “to” (and in place of “two” AND “too,” for that matter), used “ur” for “you’re” and “yr” for “your.”

While I love the ease technology gives my workload, I can’t help but shake my head at the price American children are paying for the conveniences they have. My junior students–also Honors–have difficulty placing apostrophes properly. They can’t tell me the difference between “there,” “their,” and “they’re.”

Programs that proofread, while I admit they can be helpful, have created a dependency. Students have no accountability for their own writing skills. After all, why should they remember that it should be “all right” not “alright” when Microsoft Word in its infinite wisdom makes the correction for them as soon as they strike the next key?

When I was younger and still taking math classes, my teachers usually allowed us to use calculators to check our work–after we had done the problems ourselves. Their logic was simple: you have to know the long way before you can use the shortcut. I think the same logic should follow in writing. Yes, you do need to know to correct the spelling of “there” to “their” so that when, later, the computer does it for you, you’ll know why.

Students today put no value on their education.

Although perhaps I shouldn’t put all the blame on the students. If they could they’d text and watch Flavor of Love all day. They don’t know enough to value their education.

Besides, it isn’t only students who devalue education in the United States. Some parents have a decreasing amount of involvement in their (not they’re) children’s educations. They blindly trust that the school is taking care of things.

Unfortunately, when a school budget is dangled by a thread of standardized test scores, many schools find themselves focusing the curriculum on test-taking skills rather than academic skills. I don’t agree with the practice, but when it comes down to teaching “real” curriculum or not having to eliminate instructional positions, I can’t say I’d act any differently.

I have my opinions about standardized testing, but that’s for another carnival.

Regardless, there is still a significant decline in the emphasis put on education in our nation. And yet, college enrollment (and graduation) is higher than ever. What kind of message are we sending to our children when they barely graduate high school and are admitted to colleges and universities once thought of as prestigious?

The result is a nation of employees who rely on the automatic proofreader in their word processors, and who are unable to be accountable for what they write.

The written word is a powerful weapon. Writers wield whole worlds with their pens, and, unlike surgeons, lawyers, and real estate agents, there is no examination that must be passed in order to become certified. Anyone can become a writer with just an idea, paper, and pen.

And instead of sanctifying this power, we reduce it to busywork assignments, let students take it for granted, and eventually, take it for granted ourselves. In fact, a colleague of mine suggested encouraging students to take their notes in text-speak in order to practice summarizing and resist the urge to write every single word. What an optimistic way of ensuring students are incapable of doing what every employee must do at one time or another: write intelligently, following general writing standards.

Unfortunately, this travesty has become so widespread as to be seen in every media outlet all over the world. Just today, in fact, while watching TV, the closed captioning on the television clearly read “presidentsy” instead of “presidency.” Really? I mean, really?

As what often feels like a single, tiny voice shouting into the wind, I fear there will be no end to the apathy toward the English language. Today prepositions are generally accepted at the ends of sentences. (I’m guilty of this myself when the “proper” grammatical construction reads/sounds awkward.) What happens tomorrow? “You’re” and “your” become one interchangeable word? Come on. (Oops! Preposition!)

Are Americans really so lazy that we’ve gone from omitting the “u” in various words—color, honor, etc.—to accepting English essays that use “yr” in place of “your,” which should really be “you’re”? I’m curious what Lynne
would say about American students (and adults, for that matter) English education and writing styles.

As a writer, as a teacher, as an American, I urge citizens and political leaders to work to effect (and that’s effect, not affect) a change in the state of English education in the United States. Write to your senators, representatives, school board presidents, governors…whoever will listen! We need to act fast or No Fear Shakespeare will become Shakespeare for Americans, and the Bard’s famous line, “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears” (Julius Caesar III.ii.74) will quickly become “Peeps, lstn ↑!!1!”

Friends, Americans, countrymen, lend me your dictionaries!

19 thoughts on “Friends, Americans, countrymen, lend me your dictionaries!

  1. 1

    Hi Nicole,Good piece, but I have a nit for you:work to affect (and that’s affect, not effect) a change I bet I won’t convince you of this, but in this case, you’re wrong.affect and effect are not just tricky, they’re double-tricky.You see, they’re not just two words (one a noun, the other a verb) that are spelled differently, they’re also two other words, a verb and a noun (related, but still, different).So “let’s see if this will have an effect” is right, since effect is a noun. And “How does this affect you?” is right, since affect is a verb.People confuse them because they sound the same.So far so good, and this all agrees with what you said.But here’s the kicker: effect is a verb. And affect is a noun.Now, affect-the-noun is usually not so large a problem, because it’s pronounced a bit differently (including stress on the first syllable), and carries a specialized meaning.But effect-the-verb is a killer.This is the one that has screwed you up here. The phrase “*ffect a change” means “attempting to bring a change about”, not “attempting to alter a change”. Consequently, it’s “effect a change” (where “effect” is here a verb), meaning “bringing a change into effect”.

  2. 2

    (Standing and applauding) Brava! I am honoured to meet you. I think teachers are the real heroes/heroines in society and I was lucky to have a few who touched my mind. I have had a life long love affair with the English language and cringe at some of the writing I see from college educated people. Ciao y’allJeffreyD

  3. 3

    Yes but a dumb society is easier to manipulate and control. Although you may despair at the English skills, our language is flexible. How many can read the original Shakespeare or Chaucher without scratching their heads? As for standardized testing, don’t get the Bitter Hinterlands started on that twaddle.

  4. 4

    Hmm, I should have explained why I liked your piece before my nitpick rather than after.I’m a fan of English myself, and while I’m a bit more laid back about it than I once was, I still do rant about the abuses occasionally.Apostrophes are a particular bugbear, and I’m increasingly frustrated by how often apostrophe abuses show up on the scrolling marquee headlines on news programs.[Fox News is a particular offender (no big surprise, having an IQ deficit appears to be a big resume-booster over there), so it’s good I only watch it when absolutely nothing else seems to be be giving me US election news.]Have you seen Bob the Angry Flower’s Bob’s Quick Guide to the Apostrophe, You Idiots? It’s even available as a colour poster, if you want to display it for the benefit of others.

  5. 5

    Learning how to express oneself clearly is one thing, a good thing. Being able to construct a scholarly exposition with pointers to the proper sources in such a fashion that those sources can be retrieved when desired is also a good thing. Speaking or writing in the register appropriate for a situation is also, no doubt, important, in a “dress for success” kind of way.But do you want to know why Kids These Days don’t give a flying fuck about grammar?It’s because they’ve been taught that “grammar” is a set of rules they must follow, rules handed down from Sinai without explanation or justification. The classic examples are the universal admonition not to split our infinitives and the warning on pain of thumbscrew to avoid leaving prepositions at the ends of sentences.What pompous fuckwittery.That’s the sort of garbage up with which the youth of America will not put.Why should an infinitive not be split, and on what basis are prepositions and their objects squeezed together like the legs of a good Baptist girl? What is the historical basis for such assertions? Do violations of these edicts actually impair clarity? Or is each such ukase just an arbitrary prescription invented by some self-righteous jerk and thoughtlessly transmitted down the generations from one schoolmarm to the next. . . you know, there might be something to that. Maybe we should ask a linguist. I mean, Elitist Bastards don’t give a damn for phony authority, but we do care about honest expertise and the professional, professorial accumulation of hard-won knowledge.I’ll tell you: I didn’t really understand what grammar was about until I studied Latin. Until then, “parts of speech” and their relationships were largely opaque and unhelpful constructions. It took the language of Lucretius and Caligula to make me appreciate how words hook together to function and the careful study of that phenomenon.If you want to know why the answer to the question “Is Our Children Learning?” is in the negative, it’s because those children are being force-fed a diet of dry gruel — assertions without basis or merit, presented with neither rhyme nor reason, which make language a series of hurdles to be cleared. Want to perpetuate that culture of indifference and ignorance? Fine: insist on your sheltered prepositions and virginal, unruptured infinitives.

  6. 6

    As Borges once pointed out, Shakespeare understood the multiple registers of the English language. (There — is that enough of an Elitist Bastard (TM) sentence for you?) Look at Macbeth’s lament about his bloody hand (II.ii):Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this bloodClean from my hand? No, this my hand will ratherThe multitudinous seas in incarnadine,Making the green one red.In one line, we hear long, Latinate words — multitudinous, incarnadine — and in the next, short ones of Anglo-Saxon roots: “green”, “one”, “red”. The varied sources of the polyglot English lexicon play against one another.Or, listen to the “play within a play” inserted into Hamlet (III.ii). The Player King and Queen speak pompous, artificially rhymed verse, deliberately constructed to contrast with the “reality” of the other characters. Just outside their plodding protestations, in the audience, live Hamlet’s cruel and bawdy jabs at Ophelia, real frustration seething under assumed madness:Lady, shall I lie in your lap? I mean, my head upon your lap? Do you think I meant cunt-ry matters? That’s a fair thought to lie between maid’s legs!Or, listen to Sir John Falstaff, mimicking the King before an audience of rowdy brothel-goers and the King’s madcap son, Prince Hal:Harry, I do not only marvel where thou spendest thytime, but also how thou art accompanied: for thoughthe camomile, the more it is trodden on the fasterit grows, yet youth, the more it is wasted thesooner it wears.Falstaff’s speech as King Henry IV parodies the style known as “euphuism”, which relies upon artfully balanced sentences, far-fetched metaphors and an attitude of self-righteousness. In Shakespeare’s time, it was much affected by people who aspired to reputations of wit and intellect; bear in mind that Falstaff describes himself like this:I was as virtuously given as a gentlemanneed to be; virtuous enough; swore little; diced not. . .above seven times a week; went to a bawdy-house oncein a quarter–of an hour; paid money that Iborrowed. . . three of four times.To capture the Shakespearean attitude to language today, a play would have to feature characters switching effortlessly from LOLspeak to the laboriously unsplit infinitives of “proper” speech.

  7. 7

    I just can’t let this alone. . . .In fact, a colleague of mine suggested encouraging students to take their notes in text-speak in order to practice summarizing and resist the urge to write every single word. What an optimistic way of ensuring students are incapable of doing what every employee must do at one time or another: write intelligently, following general writing standards.Non sequitur.It wasn’t until my final year of university that I took notes in anything like complete sentences, and that only happened because I got a laptop and found I could type really darn fast. Even then, I revisited the notes I typed to flesh them out. (This came in handy when classmates were too hung over to attend lecture — I had good notes for them to read and catch up on missed material.) Did years of taking notes in fragmented sentences and abbreviations impair my abilities as a writer? Just this once, I’m going to be an arrogant prick and assert that evidence says otherwise.Every good education plays to a student’s strengths and helps them compensate for their weaknesses. (Uh-oh, did I just employ a singular they? Heavens above!) If some aspect of a student’s background gives them a facility for quick, succinct note-taking, for rapid arithmetic or for any other useful skill, then a teacher should exploit that ability. I say that a good education does this; of course, the overbearing majority of school experiences in the United States don’t. What do you expect when the teachers are underpaid, undertrained, overworked and, consequently, looking for assignments which can easily be graded rather than exercises which might develop a growing mind?Let students take notes in any damn way that works. They’re not essays. On what deranged prescriptivist Hell of a planet must notes taken during a lecture be crafted in wrought-iron prose?

  8. 8

    Whew! You make me glad I learned to write on an Underwood manual typewriter, which has no spell-check to hear you scream. Today I do most of my writing with a text editor, which is the closest thing the computer has to that typewriter.A while back I found a printer jammed up in one of our labs. I cleared the paper path and went to empty the server cache – but it printed out two student papers before I got the job done. I made the tragic mistake of skimming them before dropping them in the recycle…Oh, the pain.

  9. NP

    Blake, I do not want students to write their notes in complete sentences. They’re notes, and they’re meant to be shortened versions of the lecture.However, many times the students aren’t able to separate their notes from formal essays. They figure they can write their essays in the same slang and shorthand they use for notes. I wouldn’t mind the students using SMS for their notes if they were able to set that mentality aside when completing writing assignments.

  10. 10

    Being told they’ll be marked down five points for each text-messaging abbreviation doesn’t stop them? Damn. Maybe kids have gotten stupider since I was in seventh grade. The threat of an instant F sure deterred us from comma splices.I blame American Idol. And Wikipedia.See, I don’t get it. This is what I’m hearing:1. Incomplete sentences are OK in notes, because notes are shortened transcriptions of lectures.2. Incomplete sentences are bad in essays.3. Text-messaging idioms are bad in essays.4. Therefore, text-messaging idioms are bad in notes.Are students so inconsistent in their sin that one type of shorthand will carry over to the more formal setting, but not the other? Perhaps I just have Teh Dumb this morning, because that makes no sense to me whatsoever, and fails to be in accord with how I recall students responding to their natural enemy.Decades of browbeating have failed to produce a grammatically literate society. In any other circumstance, such a spectacular record of failure would provoke the outcry, “EDUCATION: THOU ART DOIN IT RONG”. For some reason I dare not fathom, the fraction of the population which did manage to absorb the senseless hodgepodge of maledictions we call “grammar” takes so much delight in putting down the rest of the populace that they’ll never consider language being taught any other way.

  11. 12

    @Blake: I sure as hell wouldn’t have expected that. Not after seeing some of the essays my teaching assistant friend had to grade. Even the college level coursework was filled with SMS speak, fractured language, and incoherent – actually, I can’t call it thinking. Not at all.I think what NP’s getting at is that her students were so habituated to SMS shorthand that they automatically used it in their essays, and so to break them of bad habits, a teacher might choose to make them use real words even in their notes. Certainly, a teacher who’s encountering SMS in formal essays isn’t going to be very excited about encouraging its use in any form!Text-speak is fun and funny and useful, but I’d hate to see it take over the written language. Call me old-fashioned, but I still believe a person should have at least a passing familiarity with proper spelling, grammar and sentence construction. Too many people coming out of school today don’t. My 2 cents, for what they’re worth.

  12. 13

    Addendum: I must ‘fess up to my ulterior motives, here: I write in complete sentences, often using large words. I rely upon our nation’s beleagured English teachers to ensure that grammar-savvy students with a modicum of reading comprehension are produced to ensure I have a large enough fan base to feed me into a ripe old age. I do not want to have to translate my epic into LOL speak in order to reach a wide audience.So you see, for me, this debate isn’t academic. It’s personal.

  13. 14

    Text-speak is fun and funny and useful, but I’d hate to see it take over the written language.Slippery slope.Call me old-fashioned, but I still believe a person should have at least a passing familiarity with proper spelling, grammar and sentence construction.Begging the question. How do we define what qualify as proper spelling, grammar and sentence construction? By hewing to prescriptions which have no historical foundation and are constantly, continually violated by good writers? Why should an Elitist Bastard care about such pointless strictures, promulgated by people who have never made a scholarly study of language? To quote linguist Heidi Harley,What kills me is the idea that, for 99.99% of the educated American public, this is what “grammar” is: a laundry list of half-remembered strictures against certain forms and usages, understood as commandments from on high about How To Do Right, not even dignified with a discussion of what the proscribed forms and usages actually are, grammatically speaking. Nonstandard irregular verb forms in the English perfect? Accusative (or ‘object’) pronouns appearing in nominative (or ‘subject’) position? The structural properties of negative polarity items like anything? The teachers don’t know this stuff, let alone the students. All anyone knows is that He should have did it is “bad grammar”, and must be avoided and looked down on, like pointing, farting, or scratching yourself in public. This stuff is not “English Grammar”. At best, it’s lessons in (Standard American) English Deportment and Etiquette. It is really, really demoralizing that almost nobody out there knows the difference.“Grammar lessons” in schools demoralize the linguists the same way that biology classes taught by creationists demoralize the biologists.Too many people coming out of school today don’t [have a “passing familiarity” with good writing habits].And therein lies the point. If people can’t write, then the educational system which should have taught them how to write failed. If the educational system failed and has been failing for decades, then it’s been founded on bad principles.If you teach grammar as a litany of “thou shalt not” prescriptions, your students will not learn to write.Complain all you want. The situation will not improve.

  14. 15

    @Blake: I do agree that there are a lot of Byzantine rules that should be done away with, and that English education needs to be overhauled (just like every other sort). Until that happens, however, we’re going to have to keep pounding away on the “Thou Shalt Nots,” or we’re going to end up with an assload of people who think “He should have did it” is a perfectly acceptable sentence.You and I… we’re going to have to kidnap NP and Efrique and hammer out a new way of teaching English. You do realize that, right?Oh, and incidentally, you might want to have a gander at Pharyngula….;-)

  15. 16

    Until that happens, however, we’re going to have to keep pounding away on the “Thou Shalt Nots,” or we’re going to end up with an assload of people who think “He should have did it” is a perfectly acceptable sentence.Or a metric fuckload of people who don’t give a flying fuck about acceptable sentences and carry in their hearts an implacable fucking hatred of the written word plus the conviction that nothing can be more boring than a fucking book.Like the country we’ve got right now.Because our parents and our teachers tried to pound those lessons into our generation, and their teachers tried to pound that lesson into them, back and back and back.Far be it for me to suggest that pounding hasn’t worked so far and won’t work any better now.

  16. 17

    Ah, I knew this whole shebang was reminding me of something.[S]pending three or four grades practicing once again the addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division of fractions would bore anyone — and the tragedy is that, say, elementary probability theory is within reach of these students. Likewise for the forms of plants and animals presented without evolution; history presented as wars, dates, and kings without the role of obedience to authority, greed, incompetence, and ignorance; English without new words entering the language and old words disappearing; and chemistry without where the elements come from. The means of awakening these students are at hand and ignored. Since most school children emerge with only a tiny fraction of what they’ve been taught permanently engraved in their long-term memories, isn’t it essential to infect them with consumer-tested topics that aren’t boring . . . and a zest for learning?— Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World (1996), p. 341.

  17. 18

    or we’re going to end up with an assload of people who think “He should have did it” is a perfectly acceptable sentence.What’s wrong with that sentence? Is it somehow ambiguous or unclear? I’m not trolling – really think about what the problem is with the sentence. What rules are being violated? Are they VALID rules? Do the rules have a solid basis for their existence? Do the boundaries they enforce provide the language with some sort of clarity which it would not have without them?

  18. 19

    The two most important classes I took in college were English 101 and English 102. i was initially an English major and I went to war with both of those professors. When they returned my writing pieces to me with so much red on them they looked like they were used to clean up a crime scene, I thought they were sooooo dumb (because I was a brilliant 18 year-old who had won some creative writing awards in high school). Thank god they won those battles. I am IMMENSELY grateful and the lessons they taught me benefit me nearly every day. Bravo to you and your work!

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