Thursday, June 19, 2014

I'd like to thank my English teachers

Photo by Pimthida via Flickr
Words have always held a certain allure for me. Reading them, writing them, noticing them. Every year as soon as I got the chance I'd grab my older brother's English textbook and read through all of the stories. It was ever so much more interesting than wading through "See Jane run. Run Jane, run." When I first started school Dick and Jane were still running and Spot was chasing balls. Exciting stuff, right there. Thank goodness for older brothers and libraries and being able to read before I entered kindergarten because I'm fairly certain if Dick, Jane, Spot and all of their friends had been my first exposure to reading I would not have been nearly as enamored with the whole idea.

I can't say that I had the same affinity for studying grammar. Diagramming sentences seemed like a deathly dull task when there were stories to be read, and I'm fairly certain that I slept through most of my Grammars of English class in college. (I checked out some time after the section on the history of the English language and couldn't tell you much more about it than that the English language is a beautiful and complicated thing precisely because we drew from so many origins.) I am completely aware that sometimes in my writing I use less than stellar grammar, and it took me until my second year in college to understand what comma splices were. I'm probably still very guilty of using them.

Still, the basic structure behind crafting a literate sentence stuck with me, and although I had to resort to Google to remind myself of what a participle is and why it shouldn't dangle, I know how to use them correctly because my English teachers drilled it into us over and over again with all of those irritating sentence diagrams. (Participle - irritating. Subject - sentence diagrams.)

It was a bit of a shock when I went back to school for my accounting degree and discovered that the new crop of students didn't really understand how to write a decent research paper. I spent the next two and a half years telling group members, "No, really, let me take this and I'll just edit (completely rewrite) it a bit." In all fairness, probably most of them were business students precisely because they didn't get excited at the thought of writing a twenty page research paper. But I assumed that somewhere journalism classes still flourished, and teachers still taught eager would-be writers how to write for comprehension.

I'm going to choose to believe that the incidences which spurred this blog post are not the fault of any English teachers. I'm going to assume that they are still out there, diagramming away, correcting faulty use of language and doing their best to encourage clarity of thought in their students' writing. I'm going to assume that some students just aren't listening. Because I don't know how else to explain a headline like this, "Illegal Shotgun Owner Used in Killing Sentenced." (Was the shotgun owner used in the killing? Was the shotgun sentenced?) Or a news article that says this, "The people of Wessington Springs are getting some of their first glimpses of the devastation left by a tornado in full sunlight Thursday morning." (I'm sorry, Wessington Springs, my heart really does go out to all who lost homes and property in the tornado that happened on WEDNESDAY night in what we can presume was not full sunlight. I am glad that there appear to have been no serious injuries beyond the slaughtering of basic sentence structure. If you want to help, you can donate through the Red Cross website, simply designate your donation for Wessington Springs.)

I'd like to assume that the web content was written by some high school intern and was swiftly corrected by the journalism majors who run the show. But in the first case the headline is still there in all of its ungrammatical glory so clearly someone either doesn't care or is sleeping on the job. Maybe it's just the difference between print and television journalism. Maybe in the quest to get news out at an ever increasing pace the idea of proofreading for clarity has become old-fashioned.

Whatever the reason, I'd like to thank my English teachers.

I'd like to thank them for teaching me how to write sentences that make sense, even when it meant sentence diagrams that filled the entire chalkboard.

I'd like to thank them for teaching us that quality matters more than quantity. And for exposing us to authors who threw all of the established rules out the window and made it work.

I'd like to thank them for drilling into us the idea that we must proofread everything. (I'd also like to thank the world for not inventing computers that check spelling and grammar until after I'd learned to proofread my own work.) If I could offer one teeny-tiny suggestion it would be that they could have improved upon it by making us proofread papers while having classmates intermittently walk up to us saying "Mom! Mom! Hey mom, watch this! Mom, I'm hungry! Mom, guess what? Mom, look at how I can squeeze the top off of my string cheese! Mom, watch me juggle my clothes!" (In short, I'm blaming any proofreading misses on my children.)

I'd like to thank them for all of the hours they put into reading and correcting term papers. I'd especially like to thank my senior English teacher for not saying "Really? Twenty pages on the history of the conflict in Ireland? Do I look like I have time to read that?"

I'd like to thank them for all of the assigned reading that I loved, and even for the books that I hated. I'll admit that I read a lot of fluff these days, but thanks to them I can pretty well tell the difference between fluff and writing that will stand the test of time.

I'd like to thank them for making us do poetry journals, both the finding of poems that we liked and the writing of original work. Those were some of my favorite things ever except for the part where we had to illustrate them. I thank them for not marking down for the use of stick figures.

I'd like to thank my high school English teacher for agreeing when I summarized Of Human Bondage as basically being a book about a guy who lives. He taught me that great literature still contains an element of personal taste. And that perhaps some books are best understood after a little more life experience, although I haven't tested that theory by going back and re-reading it because once was quite enough for me.

I'd like to thank all of the elementary teachers who taught me English as part of their daily schedule. I'd like to thank them for all of the kite tails and caterpillars that we got to add to with every book we finished, because I was a competitive little person and that was pretty much the only thing I was going to excel at.

I'd like to thank them for teaching me to use both a dictionary and a thesaurus.

Most of all I'd just like to thank them for teaching me that language is vibrant and beautiful and ever changing. For teaching me to cherish words and to choose them wisely. For teaching me that the written and spoken word is both a powerful tool and a breath-taking story.

Thank you, English teachers. Some of us listened.

1 comment:

  1. Amen. I should probably google what a dangling participle is too.. and comma splice? I bet I splice dozens of them. Do you notice? Don't answer that. ;-)

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