Archive for the ‘Language’ Tag

The Plural, the Possessive, and Contractions   Leave a comment

With Ruminations About Students, Technology, and Pre-College Education

The atrocious writing of many college students alarms me.  I wonder how they got into college without knowing, for example, that “it’s” is not the same as “its.”  “Its'” is not “its” either.  I know whereof I write, after years of teaching U.S. History survey courses (mostly the first part, through 1877) at a public university in Georgia.  To be fair, many students also write beautifully and understand English usage and grammar well.  This post is not about them and their delightful essays, however.

Many students seem confused about how to make a singular word plural.  Consider, O reader, the word “colonist.”  I am tired of reading essays and quiz answers in which pupils use it as if it is plural.  As they should have learned in elementary school, “colonists” is plural and “colonist” is singular.”  The way to make many words plural is to add an “s” to the end.

Many students confuse the plural and possessive forms of words.  Some of them labor under the delusion that “colonist’s” is plural, not singular possessive.   Alas, they are not alone.  One needs to go no further than the comments sections of websites to find examples of mangling the English language.  An example off the Internet is present in every weekly sales paper for a small chain of grocery stores in an around Athens-Clarke County, Georgia, where I live.  The sales papers indicate the stores “with deli’s.”  You, O reader, can probably think of local examples easily too.

As a matter of fact, one should use an apostrophe to create the plural forms sometimes, as in letters.  For example, I might calculate the percentage of students I assigned A’s at the end of last semester.  I would have “as” without the apostrophe.   The problem regarding apostrophes is using them when one should not.

I do not know what is so confusing for so many people regarding “it’s” and “its.”  “It’s” is the contraction for “it is.”  “Its” is a singular possessive pronoun.  This is simple, is it not?  It should be.

Although I teach history, I also have to teach some English usage and grammar, unfortunately.  I make students write essays, not take tests.  Each student has about a month to write 8-10 pages on a prompt he or she selects from a list of three or four options.  I also provide the pupils with detailed instructions and writing guidelines.  When I add the book report to the list of writing assignments, I assign each student to write 28-36 pages during the course of the semester.  This is hardly draconian, except on yours truly, for I have to read all of this writing.  (Do the math.)  Yet some pupils, as they write in course evaluations, consider 28-36 pages to be “a lot of writing.”  The length of the writing assignments (28-36 pages spread across four papers in one semester) is not excessive, but the accumulation of their bad writing and their complaining is.

I refrain from criticizing teachers who have preceded me in these pupils’ lives.  Not only do I lack sufficient information to arrive at a conclusion, but I also understand that teachers have inattentive students.  Many factors can cause students not to pay attention.  Life at home might be troublesome.  A pupil might be hungry.  One might be fatigued.  A student might have an especially short attention span.  Or one might simply not care.  Regardless of the reason or set of reasons applicable in any given case, a reality teachers know well is that what they taught and what certain students learned bear little or no similarity to each other.  Communication is, by definition, an interactive process.  Whenever Person #1 sends a message to Person #2, who receives it and understands it as Person #1 intended, Person #1 has communicated with Person #2.  A number of factors might garble the message, even if Person #1 has sent it as best as possible.

I do not blame teachers overall.  Yes, some teachers are better at their jobs than others are, but teachers deserve much more credit than they receive.  We, as a society, require that they do more than they ought to have to do.  Parents and guardians, for example, have much responsibility; we should not shift any of that to teachers.  Yet we do.    Not only do I blame many parents and guardians, especially those who do not accept their share of responsibility and make like needlessly difficult for educators, but I also assign blame to inattentive and lazy students who rely too much on technology.  “Technology” is a blanket term for tools, from the wheel to smart phones.  Technology is not the problem.  It is, after all, neutral; how one uses it is good or bad.  I know from one-on-one discussions with certain students that they rely on their computers (word processing programs, to be precise) with regard to writing.  These pupils have not, therefore, internalized English usage and grammar as well as they should have.  These students’ writing would be superior without computers; they would know how to write in a literate manner without word processing programs.  The fault lies with these pupils.

The technology, in fact, can be overwhelmingly positive.  I recall the electronic typewriter I used during my undergraduate years.  I remember being grateful when the professor required end notes, not footnotes.  I also recall having to retype pages because of a few mistakes.  Word processing programs are godsends in my life.  I do not, however, mistake the spell check function for proofreading.  Many students do.

I harbor concerns for college students who write poorly, as evident in their difficulties relating to the plural, the possessive, and contractions.  Many of them will apply for employment that will require them to write in an official capacity.  For some the application and interview process will entail going to a room and writing on paper.  Or perhaps they will, as part of the process, have to write a statement on the application itself.  There is also the matter of the cover letter, assuming that the employer in question reads it.  The process will expose these applicants’ inadequate language skills, unless they improve those skills in the meantime.

I recall having excellent teachers as well as parents who valued my education.  I also remember being an attentive student.  The factors of school, home, and pupil are essential in education.  They are crucial to one knowing the difference between lessons and lesson’s.

KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

JULY 1, 2017 COMMON ERA

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Posted July 1, 2017 by neatnik2009 in Language, University of North Georgia

Tagged with

Personally   Leave a comment

Or, Why We Should Strive Not to Label Obviously Subjective Statements Unnecessarily

I admit readily that many others are better English-language stylists than I, but I strive to be as skilled and elegant a stylist as possible.  I also encourage others to improve the quality of their speaking and writing, for I apply one standard to them and to myself.  If one is a literate human being, one will hopefully speak and write as well as possible.  Reality frequently dashes my hope, unfortunately.

Whenever I hear or read “in my personal opinion,” “personally, I,” and other needless uses of “personal” and “personally,” I object, at least to myself.  Related to that issue is “in my opinion” when a statement, even in the absence of that qualifier, is obviously subjective.  With regard to “my personal opinion,” of course my opinion is personal.  What else would it be?  The use of the first person indicates the personal.

The interpersonal reason for using redundant qualifiers in obviously subjective statements is to practice diplomacy with regard to people who object to the subjective content.  You, O reader, might know the experience of receiving the

THAT’S YOUR OPINION!

reaction.  I do.  The essence of my measured reply is

Of course it is my opinion, for it is obviously a subjective statement.

That does not soothe ruffled feathers much of the time, of course.  I know from experience that responding calmly to someone who is irrational (A) demonstrates maturity and self-control and (B) makes the other person angrier.  Someone has to model good behavior, however.  My simple question about people with such objections is:  Since they take offense to easily, why would anyone want to engage them in conversation unnecessarily?  I prefer to speak and correspond with calm people.

Shall we listen to each other, notice that certain statements are obviously subjective, and strive to avoid redundant words?

KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

JUNE 30, 2017 COMMON ERA

Posted June 30, 2017 by neatnik2009 in Language

Tagged with

Impact   Leave a comment

Or, Why We Should Influence and Affect Instead

I take the English language seriously.  When I see a

10 Items of Less

sign in a store, for example, I struggle to resist the temptation to comment that the sign should read

10 Items or Fewer.

Sometimes I choose not to resist the temptation.  I object to confusing “further” and “farther.”  It is not outside my experience to erupt into profanities in private while reading students’ writing in which they have used “it’s” (the contraction of “it is”) in lieu of “its” (a singular possessive pronoun).  I roll my eyes when I hear people say “very unique” of “most unique,” for degrees of uniqueness do not exist.  (For that matter, no woman is ever “very pregnant,” for degrees of pregnancy do not exist either.)  I understand the distinction between the subjective and objective cases well enough to realize that it is whom one knows, not who one knows, that matters.  Oxymorons such as “instant classic” and “new tradition” lead me to conclude that some people do not understand classics and traditions are old-certainly neither instant nor new.  And I cringe when I read or hear “impact” as a verb, in lieu of “influence” or “affect.”  I am a beneficiary of some excellent English teachers.

I realize that language changes.  I know, for example, that “prevent” used to mean “precede.”  It makes sense, after all; the combination of “pre” and “event” gives us “prevent.”  Yet I am no postmodernist.  No, I am an unabashed modernist (in the sense of Enlightenment modernism) with regard to language and other matters.  I affirm that words mean what they mean.  So, for example, when I consult the Merriam-Webster website and read that, according to those linguistic lords, I may use “literally” hyperbolically to mean “figuratively” without being incorrect, I object.  Most dictionaries describe, not proscribe, the meaning of words, as popular culture determines those definitions.  My inner linguistic Federalist chafes against the Jeffersonian Republican character of most dictionaries.

In old dictionaries “impact,” as a verb, means (A) to become wedged in somewhere and (B) to collide with something or someone.  Note, O reader, the physicality of the verb.  The main example of the correct use of “impact” as a verb in media that comes to my mind comes from Endgame (1997), an episode of Babylon 5 (1994-1998).   Captain James, aboard the E.A.S. Agamemnon during the climactic battle against forces loyal to the dictatorial Earth Alliance President William Morgan Clark, shouts that missiles are

impacting on all sides.

I seldom hear and read correct uses of “impact” as a verb, however.

During the last few years I have noticed with much dismay and gnashing of teeth the increased frequency of people using “impact” as a verb (and, by extension, the gerund “impacting”) in popular culture, in casual conversation, on National Public Radio and the British Broadcasting Corporation, on academic websites, in job descriptions, and in academic writing.  In more than one book (of mine) I have crossed through “impact” and written “influence” or “affect.”  I have also written an anti-impact policy into my college syllabi.  Based on essays I have graded, I have concluded that many students have not read my syllabi.

I enjoy a certain elegance of language and encourage a healthy respect for the English tongue.  The evisceration of English that I have been witnessing for years disturbs me.  Perhaps the best I can do is (A) to encourage the proper use of language and (B) to model that use of English.  I do the best I can.

KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

JUNE 30, 2017 COMMON ERA

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This is post #1500 of SUNDRY THOUGHTS.

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Posted June 30, 2017 by neatnik2009 in Language

Tagged with , ,

The Definite Article   Leave a comment

Above:  The

Scan by Kenneth Randolph Taylor

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One should use the definite article (the) cautiously.  I argue this point, for I prefer to speak and write accurately.  I also like for others to do the same.  The misuse of “the” renders one’s argument objectively false by overstating one’s case.  Such shoddy discourse annoys me.

As I have noticed, many college students have been (and are) overly found of “the.”  During my years of teaching U.S. history survey courses in college, I have emphasized the fact that many colonists in what became the United States remained loyal to the British Empire during the American Revolutionary period.  In stating this plainly I have manifested fidelity to objective reality.  I have also instructed pupils both orally and in writing not to write of “the colonists” as if all colonists were of one political mind and warned these students.  Nevertheless, many students have not heeded my instructions to write of the past accurately in their essays.  I have graded those essays accordingly.

Another fault of misusing “the” is applying it in the spirit of invective.

The ______s insert negative stereotype here.

Infamously, for example, the Gospel of John mentions “the Jews” (in most English-language translations), although the Greek word is actually a geographical term sometimes.  Whether the term should be “the Jews” or “the Judeans” in English in any given verse, the issue of invective remains.  In the case of the Gospel of John, how can one avoid reading those passages without considering the millennia of Christian anti-Semitism inspired partially by the invective in that text?

In 2017 we continue to have problems with invective, often expressed with the misuse of the definite article.  Human nature is constant, after all.  One might engage in partisan invective, for example.  Or one might be a racist or some other variety of bigot, perhaps with regard to religion.  Or maybe one might be merely an unrepentant ethnocentrist and Nativist.  Either way, one engages in stereotyping, thereby overlooking the diversity inherent in any population.  One therefore engages in the sin of judging others.  One also makes objectively false statements.

Shall we strive to love our neighbors as ourselves and to think, speak, and write objectively correctly?

KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

JUNE 27, 2017 COMMON ERA

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Dumbing Down Our Language   Leave a comment

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Above:  Crater Lake, Crater Lake National Park, Oregon, July 1942

Photographer = Lee Russell (1903-1986)

Image Source = Library of Congress

Reproduction Number = LC-USF34-073146-D

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Language matters to me, for I am a man of letters.  I am also a grandson of an English teacher, so much of my grandmother’s concern and care for the English language has become my own.  Thus increasingly frequent assaults on the English language bother me.  Some examples follow:

  1. Confusing “it’s” and “its;”
  2. Confusing a possessive form of a word for its plural form;
  3. Using “impact” as a verb in the absence of an event resulting in a crater or wedging something or someone in somewhere;
  4. Writing or speaking of how someone “impacted” the world, community, et cetera, or of how “impactful” something is;
  5. Mistaking the singular form of a word which ends in -ist for its plural form; and
  6. Using the passive voice (in news reports, for example) when we know the identity of the actors.

So:

  1. I do not want to read or write about laws were passed by a state legislature or how hot drinks were distributed at a coffee shop;
  2. Nobody has impacted me, but many people have influenced and affected me;
  3. Good books have proven influential and memorable, but never impactful;
  4. “Colonist” is singular and “colonists” is plural;” and
  5. Nothing has gone to the dog’s.

It’s true.

Our English language deserves more care and respect than many of those who speak and write her take with her.  Clear message-sending, a stage in effective communication, requires correct use of the language.  If what I have observed regarding the degradation of common English is a portent for the future, I weep for that time to come.

KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

SEPTEMBER 10, 2014 COMMON ERA