Gummed up Grammar

24 04 2012

Is grammar even taught in most public school systems in the 21st century?  Basic parts of speech and the requirements of a complete sentence are taught when students first begin to write in elementary school. In the higher grades, forming complex and compound sentences correctly will likely be addressed. Slight mention is made about the use of punctuation.

With such a neglect of focus on the rules of grammar, is it any wonder that in just a few short weeks of observation, I encountered numerous instances of the grammatical error which is the focus of this paper? The error involves contractions. The written errors involve the use of a contracted auxiliary verb on to the modal which precedes it, as in these examples:  would’ve, should’ve and might’ve.  While this syntactic construction is common, and possibly appropriate in spoken English, its use in written English is not according to acceptable Standard American English grammar guidelines.

In Middle School

While the spoken use of these sorts of contractions is understandable, their appearance in writing finds no welcome residence. Since I work as an instructional assistant at a public middle school, I’m exposed to “teen speak” and the translation of the same into written form. It’s disturbing to me that after seven or eight years of education, many students still attempt to write essays and papers using informal, spoken English rather than proper grammar, according to the rules of Standard American English.

Recently, I’ve been helping a dozen eighth graders polish a compare and contrast essay for their language arts class. These are actual sentences taken from these essays: a) “Mr. White should of listened to his friend;” b) “To be happy, Mr. Peter could of wished his wife back again;” c) “The story would of been better if there was more action.” This list could continue. As illustrated, these students used improper syntax in their papers.

Certainly, these papers are only first drafts and mistakes should be expected. Unfortunately, there is a deeper problem here. As I sit beside the student reading the essay aloud to them, I stop after reading one of these sentences to ask, “What’s wrong with that sentence?” I point to the sentence on the paper.  They look at the sentence and answer truthfully, “It sounds fine.”  That response reveals the root of this problem. It does sound fine because it sounds exactly like what they would say.  Sounding good and being proper written English are obviously not synonymous.

At College Level

Only two weeks ago, my youngest son asked me to proofread and edit a report he had written for his psychology class. Here are two statements pulled directly from that paper: a) “the violent games should of primed;” and b) “the experimenters could of expected.” My son is 18 years old and a freshman at a prestigious private university, which required a written essay before acceptance was granted.  This same boy graduated from high school with an Honors Diploma, which required successfully passing Honors English.  He took Honors English for four years in high school and never received less than a B. At this point, should not such a person know that of is a preposition and not try to use it as a verb?

Again, the paper in question was a rough draft.  However, when I said “Would of? Really?” My son looked at me and said, “What about it?” I could only shake my head and use my pen to line out of and write have above it. “We don’t write the way we talk,” I tell him. He sees my correction and says, “Of, have, big deal.” Apparently, the ability to correctly form a sentence in Standard American English is not an important skill in the mind of a college freshman. Would college professors and future employers share this flippant attitude?

Beginning and End

Clearly, this error begins with speech. Children learn language from the adults around them. Most Americans use contractions when they speak. In fact, many people would judge a person who did not use contractions in their speech as trying to “talk fancy” or as being “hoity-toity.”  I will hypothesize that speaking with improper grammar affects a person’s ability to write using proper grammar. Furthermore, I believe the propensity for children to think they can write in the same way they talk negatively impacts their ability to learn grammar in school. In fact, the non-standard spoken form of English children learn becomes their first language, making writing in Standard American English all the more challenging to ever completely master.

Is there hope for these children who are doomed to learn incorrect grammar consistently in their preschool years? Should parents modify their speech so children hear English that would translate exactly from what is heard to what is written on the page? Such an expectation is unrealistic. A possible remedy for such problems is to increase the amount of written language young children hear. This could be accomplished by reading books aloud that don’t focus too heavily on dialectic speech patterns. However, within the educational system, most teachers have learned not to rely too heavily on parental participation.

This means that these types of books should be read aloud frequently and consistently in preschool through primary grades. Also, teachers should model English grammar in its written form and require students to practice using it as soon as they learn to write. Language skills might be introduced through speaking, but the perfection of these skills can only be accomplished through writing and reading and writing some more.

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