The Nitty Gritty of Grammar

grammar t-shirtMy eighth grade students took an English quiz on Friday. This came after a solid week of “reviewing” the basic rules of punctuation and capitalization: the comma, the period, the colon, the semicolon, the exclamation point, the question mark, the dash and the hyphen, and when to use quotation marks and italics. All of these rules are condensed into a very simple chapter of our English textbook entitled, “Section 10: Punctuation and Capitalization”. The chapter is divided into four sub-sections, and we spent a class period on each one. We read aloud the rules and examples and discussed each thoroughly. As homework, the students completed all of the accompanying pages in the grammar workbook, practicing the application of the rules discussed in class that day. Each day we started class by checking homework and reviewing the rules again. Not a minute of the 40-minute English period was wasted Monday through Thursday. So, after all of that, I am very sad to report that the grades on this quiz are abysmal. I’ve only graded half of them so far, but I had to stop after that half to take a break. It was just too painful to continue.

grammar teacherWhy is this? This is a good school, with students coming from well-educated parents. The vast majority of my students are being raised in homes where English is the mother tongue. Our eighth graders go on to attend some of the finest high schools in the nation, whether they be Catholic, public, or private. Why is the study of grammar and punctuation so challenging? Why do teachers have to teach and reteach the same basic rules each and every year?

Just after Thanksgiving of this year, these same eighth graders will be taking a national standardized test, the High School Placement Test. This test is important to them, because the score of the HSPT is one of the seven or eight factors used by the area Catholic high schools to make decisions about admissions and scholarship offerings. The test is divided into five sections: verbal skills, quantitative skills, reading comprehension, mathematics, and language skills. Yes, that’s right. The test is 3/5 language arts and 2/5 math.

We all have our weaknesses and our strengths. Words have always been my strength, whether written or spoken. Likewise, one of my weaknesses has always been math, algebra in particular. I struggled with it all through school, and was dismayed to find out that even as an English major, I still needed two semesters of math to graduate. But, my theory is that we don’t use algebra every day in every subject. We do, however, use the English language and its conventions every day and in every subject.

past simpleAll of the foreign language teachers I have known and worked with all say that their students, whatever the foreign language they are taking, do not know their English grammar well enough to learn a foreign language. How do you learn to conjugate verbs in Spanish if you can’t find the verb in an English sentence? How do you know which tense to use in French if you don’t know the difference between past, present, or future tenses in English? Yet, we teach and reteach parts of speech each year.

sad commaRecently I spent a day of professional development in a room of fellow middle school English teachers. We all unanimously decried this phenomenon. One teacher, someone I know to be an excellent teacher, told me that at the beginning of the year she gives her each of her eighth graders a strip of paper with commas stretched across it—commas, nothing else. She then explains to them that she knows the comma is rare and difficult to find, so she is giving them each a free supply of them to use in their essays for her all year. This is true. Let’s face it, commas are important. Commas and other punctuation marks help the reader interpret the sentence correctly. For example, consider this simple sentence: Let’s eat Grandma! Is this a horrifying statement from a family of cannibals preparing for Thanksgiving? No, it is simply a missing comma that causes us to shriek at the sight of that sentence. The addition of a simple comma makes all the difference: Let’s eat, Grandma!

However, it appears to be feast or famine when it comes to the comma. I explained to my teacher friend that at my school, we have a comma epidemic. Consider this response on a question from Friday’s quiz where the students were asked to insert commas where needed: “Lighthouses, can range in height from 193 feet, to only 14 feet,” the keeper explained. trouble with tribbles gifWhen I am grading a stack of eighth grade essays, I feel like Captain Kirk in the famous episode “The Trouble with Tribbles”. Not even the CDC and a lifelong supply of red pens could control this.

Of course, this epidemic is not restricted to the confines of the middle school English classroom. Proofreading and editing is on the decline across the board. Are our standards of proper grammar dropping due to the internet, the popularity of blogs, self-publishing, and the like? Where have all the proofreaders and copy editors gone? Is the “do it yourself” spirit of America the cause? Is “teaching to the test” the problem? Can we blame it on the Common Core? Or, is it what my eighth graders believe, “We won’t need this after the test.”

There’s a comedic side to all of this. Jay Leno used to have a segment where he periodically displayed advertisements and billboards with humorous typos and grammar errors. Two guys, Jeff Deck and Benjamin D. Herson, made a big splash in the media world with their endeavor, The Great Typo Hunt, which was later turned into a book, one that is hopefully written with perfect grammar and error-free. Each year in my back-to-school night presentation for my eighth grade parents, stop-clubbing-580x417I interrupt my normal power point presentation explaining my syllabus with a slide meant to both garner a laugh and make a point. They all laugh, but it’s not going to be funny when they see the grades on Friday’s quiz.

Of course, with the holidays right around the corner, I must steel myself for the complete and abject failure of the Christmas-card sending population to correctly identify themselves:

Merry Christmas from the Johnson’s

Why an apostrophe? The apostrophe is used to denote possession or to create a contraction. (For the record, it’s Johnsons, no apostrophe!) And, what about those poor families whose last names end with an “s”:

Merry Christmas from the Jones’s

or, is it

Merry Christmas from the Jones’

Here we add insult to injury. (For the record, it’s Joneses, no apostrophe at all!) One of my students admitted that her mother has changed the way she words her Christmas greeting because their last name ends in an “s” and even when she did it correctly, her friends tried to correct her. She now writes “Merry Christmas from the ____________ family”, avoiding the plural and possessive problem altogether.

What’s the average well-educated but grammar-anxious person to do? There are many reliable sources for help, and none involve an intervention or regular attendance at AA meetings. smart owlOne of my favorite resources is the Purdue University OWL (online writing lab). Finding the answer to your grammar question, from easy things like basic comma or apostrophe usage to more complicated things like the MLA rules for citing sources, is just a click away. Another good source is the award-winning website Grammar Girl.

So, how is your grammar and punctuation? Want to test it? Here’s a sampling of the exact questions from my eighth graders’ quiz on Friday. Give it a go. Proofread carefully. red pensWhen you’re finished, check your work. Let’s see if you are ready for my red pen!

Directions: Correct the following sentences by adding or correcting punctuation or capitalization as needed.

  1. Kim what did Dad mean when he said You can’t judge a book by its cover? asked Sue
  2. The ring was turned into the office however the owner was never found
  3. Max give your sister the keys so she can take them immediately to Mrs Lee
  4. We have been to these locations Augusta Maine Boise Idaho and Frankfort Kentucky
  5. Other activities the train ride the bumper cars and the petting zoo are still open
  6. I attend school in the east ski in the west vacation in the north and live in the south
  7. We couldnt understand how Dads wallet and the twins backpack had been misplaced
  8. Rileys first time on a merry go round was when he was 15 months old
  9. My spanish teacher lived in mexico she was born in a US territory
  10. This is the last straw senator Johnson said i am not voting for this amendment

To check your work, click here!Answer Key

If you didn’t do as well as you expected, don’t dismay. With a little practice, you too can send out your Christmas cards without fear. Visit a local bookstore or log on to Amazon.com and purchase a grammar guide; there are many choices and price points. Can’t commit to a 300-page tome? grammar bookCheck out the illustrated version of Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss and Bonnie Timmons. Or, spend a few minutes each day on Purdue’s Owl or Grammar Girl.

If you scored 100%, be kind to your friends and family members when correcting their grammar and punctuation. no more violenceThe red pen is a tool of instruction, not a weapon of mass destruction. Yes, it is important to help and educate your loved ones, but remember, violence is never the answer.

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