BLOG #36, SERIES 4
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
DOES GRAMMAR MATTER ANY MORE?
September 4, 2013
What triggered this blog is Mark Goldblatt’s column, “Welcome Back, My Ungrammatical Students” in the September 3 Wall Street Journal. Mr. Goldblatt teaches English at State University of New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology. Set off in bold type is this jolting line: Unlike your friends, who will excuse your errors, your college professor may or may not like you.
Goldblatt, in his very first line, leaps into the heart of the matter: “The fall is mere weeks away, another college semester either under way or soon to be. If you’re one of thousands of freshmen nationwide, you’ve just discovered you’ve been placed in a remedial English class.
“‘How can this be?’ you’re asking yourself. ‘I got straight A’s in high school! I love writing stories and poems! I’m good in English!’”
Needless to say, Goldblatt postulates that it does matter whether or not a student uses correct English.
But I must confess I am a tad grateful I’m now a full-time writer rather than being an English
teacher barraged by poorly written essays that have to be daily evaluated and responded to. But I put in my time–34 years worth. However, no English teacher is ever permitted to escape his/her calling. Just ask any English teacher this question: “What’s it like when your introduction to a group of people includes this line, —is an English teacher.” What do you get? How right you are: dead silence. The ultimate example of clamming up. And it’s even worse if you happen to be an “English Professor.” To be an English teacher is perceived to be at least human; but to be an English Professor is perceived to be someone possessing grammatical infallibility. Whatever you do, don’t even talk to such a sage–you’re sure to get zapped!
But there are other downsides to being an English Professor, chief of which is the sadistic delight people–especially one’s former students–take in catching grammatical mistakes you may occasionally make. Case in point, my last week’s blog. By the time I got to the last line, I was too tired to re-check the exact meaning of a word I’d used before. Sure enough, here came a zinger from my dear friend and fellow writer, Elsi Dodge, chortling with glee that she’d caught me confusing “enervating” with “energizing.” What could I do but grovel and promise to mend my ways?
THE LONG, LONG GRAMMATICAL FUSE
Goldblatt, in referencing “grammar,” does so in these words: “to refer to the overall mechanics of your writing, including punctuation, syntax and usage.” And he negatively singles out those who don’t know how to put sentences together in ways that clarify, rather than cloud, what they’re trying to say.
Permit me to approach this issue pragmatically. The inability to write or speak correctly is not likely to hurt you too much among your peers and friends. Not in the short-term, that is. And especially not if you are charismatic, cover-girl-beautiful, or a candidate for sexiest man alive hunkhood. If you’re perceived to be one of these “golden ones who seemingly can do no wrong, you’ll suffer little more than winces from such disasters as “me and Joanie were like, wild about like see’n Tony.” But, in life, there are such things as fuses. When one’s proverbial “fifteen minutes of fame” are over, and the long descent takes place; when you are no longer drop-dead beautiful or headturningly handsome, what then? You may have been hired because your looks and contours were impossible to ignore, but inevitably there will come a day when your looks can no longer make up for your embarrassing mistakes in writing and speaking. When one more mangled syntax, misspelled word, or misplaced punctuation mark costs the firm one of its most valued clients—and out you go.
The problem is this: there is no one-day-seminar that can possibly fix such deficiencies. It is anything but an easy fix. Even if you memorize Strunk and White’s timeless masterpiece, Elements of Style, you’d only be part way there. Only by reading widely, reading selectively, and avoiding slangy, slovenly, poorly structured prose whenever possible, can you begin to improve the quality and enhance the power of your writing and speaking.
Which is a good time to reference another Goldblatt zinger: “While there definitely is such a thing as good writing, there’s no such thing as good grammar.” I agree 100%. One does not become a good writer by simply mastering grammar. Untold thousands of potentially significant writers have lost their love of writing because teachers sold them a bill of goods: that, unless they mastered grammar first, they’d never become good writers. Which is only partly true. They are on far safer ground if they are encouraged to write, write, write, even with occasional grammatical mistakes, and deal with one problem area at a time, not all of them at once. As problem areas–one at a time–are called to their attention by wise and empathetic mentors, who value substance over grammatical correctness, and, most important of all, consider the individual’s God-given one-of-a-kind voice sacrosanct, and not to be tinkered with, they can, over time, become “great” writers. Here I must qualify “great,” for I often say and write, “There are no great writers–there are only great stories.” By this I mean that no writer ever “arrives,” but rather we continue, as long as we live and breathe, to be works in progress. If we take too much time off–at any age—inevitably we lose our edge and become irrelevant and not worth reading any more.
So in conclusion, I invite each reader of this blog, to take grammar seriously. By so doing, you will avoid devaluing the substance of what you have to say. Recognize that effective communication is the key to success in almost every area of endeavor one may think of. Believe me, today’s world is almost desperate in its searches for men and women who are capable of writing coherent, persuasive, and interesting sentences and paragraphs.
What none of us want is a long-fuse, a ticking time-bomb, that is guaranteed to explode down the line. And let’s face it, if you are someone who is afraid to open your mouth or write an opinion on a piece of paper, then you do a grave disservice to the God who created you to do less than your best in correcting the problem–in becoming all you can be.
If this describes your condition, make today the first day of the rest of your life; if you are one who is already there, why not mentor someone who is not?