Language Lovers Unite!

By Maeve Maddox

Kathryn McCary has asked for a post on when to use a and when to use an.

Her request was prompted by the following passage she read in a piece of professionally produced corporate publicity:

Since the HLB is a secured lender, all of our credit products require collateral to maintain our positions [sic] as a accessible and cost effective source of credit for members.”

Says Kathryn,

HLB is the Federal Home Loan Bank of New York, part of a system of banks chartered by the Federal Government in 1932–you would think they could hire writers who know REALLY BASIC English usage rules!

This post is not going to explain the uses of a and an. You’ll find no fewer than four posts on the indefinite article in the DWT archives:

Give Me an A
Using “A” and “An” Before Words
When to Use “an”
A Historic” or “An Historic” Event?

The kindest thing we can say about the lapse in the bank copy is that it may have been a simple typo. It happens to the most conscientious writers. We proof an article twenty times, and as soon as the piece is published, the dratted error leaps out at us.

But let’s say that it wasn’t a typo. Let’s say that the writer didn’t see anything amiss with writing “a accessible.” That’s not a reflection on the writer’s professional education so much as an indictment of U. S. elementary education.

It’s not just professional writers who should know “really basic English usage rules” like when to use “a” and when to use “an.”

Any English speaker educated in an English-speaking country should have a form of basic standard usage down by the age of 13. As much of the content of this blog reflects, many high school and college graduates manage to get by without mastering the basics.

So, what’s to be done, other than to tear our hair?

I think that a possible answer is for language lovers to put their money where their mouths are.

Improvement in the teaching of basic English skills is not to be hoped for from the current flurry of education reform. The emphasis is all on math, science, and computer skills.

Thanks to the ubiquitous computer keyboard, handwriting has already become a despised skill. Spelling instruction is on the way out because spellcheck programs are seen by many as a substitute for knowledge of the English sound code.

Something that might help delay or reverse the decline of basic literacy skills would be a grassroots movement spearheaded by language lovers: people who respond to blogs like this one, and language zealots who go around painting out unnecessary apostrophes and correcting misspelled words on signs.

Language lovers could get together on a local level and sponsor contests for handwriting, basic grammar, and spelling. (And by spelling, I don’t mean the kind of oral exhibition that rewards overachievers for their ability to memorize words few people use. I mean competitions in which children write down words like February and definite from dictation.)

Local groups and individuals could organize contests for children ages 6-13 through youth clubs and county fairs. Aspiring novelists could be recruited to sponsor contests in which children demonstrate an acquaintance with books. After all, there’s not much point in writing books if the audience for literature continues to dwindle. Prize money could be minimal, anything from a dollar to $25.

Who knows, if such contests got started at a local level, a corporation might come along to offer a national contest with big bucks in prize money. A 13-year-old Brooklyn girl just won $50,000 from a manufacturer of mobile phones for her ability to text quickly and accurately.

Perhaps the answer to declining literacy skills lies outside the classroom.

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16 Responses to “Language Lovers Unite!”

  • Brad K.

    children demonstrate an acquaintance with books

    I just saw “Easy A”, a new movie. One of the minor plot elements is the class covering Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter. In one scene Our Heroine talks to “her favorite teacher” – and he accuses her of identifying with the book too much. She demurs that she watched the original movie (not the Demi Moore remake) – and he accuses her of being one of the two in class that did read the book – eventually she confesses.

    A college class into history of computer games found that few students enjoyed playing Ultima IV – that one is more a meditation on morality, and leans on the “draw your own map on quadrille paper” older game play approach. It seems if you can’t get the walkthrough video on YouTube – most students don’t have the patience to read the Flaming manual or accompanying explanatory text.

    Not only do students have different perceptions and expectations about a learning or communication environment – their parents have different backgrounds than mine did (I am 58). Where my folks grew up in the Great Depression, and were young adults for WWII – today’s parents often see schools not as the magic outgrowth of one-room schools (My aunt taught in one, before joining the Army and becoming a nurse), but that neighborhood building down the street that adds value to the house.

    Where I can (barely) recall the battery-operated, hand-cranked phone connected to the lady in town with the battery of phone plugs for connecting one party line to another, or to a trunk line – the cell phone has been around longer than third graders.

    How many children today have ever seen a parent sit down with pad and paper and write out a personal letter to a friend or family? Fewer and fewer see their parents write a check!

    Perhaps tablets will bring handwriting back to the (computer driven) classroom.

  • phil dragonetti

    Speaking correctly is an art—and Americans are more interested in football than art—so please do not expect them to speak in a way other than like a football player.

    Let’s face the face that the ignorance we are observing is a characteristic of “American culture”—which places greater honor on a football player than on a concert pianist. American culture is what it is—You are not going to change it.

    We keep blaming teachers and the educational system for the ignorance of our population. Doing that is like shovelling sand against the tide.

  • Rob Spykstra

    I work at an Academy that is part of a growing movement of schools who recognize the very deficiencies addressed. In our Grammar school we begin teaching English grammar in first grade and continue to work grammar as a primary subject through sixth grade. Cursive begins in first grade. Latin starts in second grade. By the time our students enter Secondary school they have a strong foundation of English grammar and writing skills.

    In secondary school they are immersed into the Great Authors of Western Civilization beginning with ancient times and moving forward. They learn formal logic and move into rhetoric. The aim is to create well-rounded students who are able to think and communicate clearly and persuasively in the technological age they live.

  • ApK

    I reiterate my request for an article on “why?”

    I know too many people who would say “So, ‘a’, ‘an’, what’s the difference? Everyone knows what they meant. The only people who care are a small group of self-appointed language lovers grammar police.”

    ApK

  • Kathryn

    Oops! Looks like I should have checked the archives before sounding off! But I’m glad the request sparked something worthwhile.

    About handwriting–I’m not altogether sure I would place it among the essential skills we need to foster. I am reminded of all the folks who clung to their manual typewriters because “it types at the speed at which I think”; well, I can ALMOST keyboard as fast as I can think, and am enormously grateful for both the skill and the technology. Yes, I think children still need to learn to use pen/pencil on paper–but I think it needs to be viewed, these days, as the backup rather than the primary skill (of course, teaching handwriting also serves as a kinesthetic reinforcement of the learning of the letters themselves).

    On the other hand, I am also reminded of my mother’s explanation for clinging to her manual typewriter, that she could still use it if the power went out. That always struck me as pretty silly since, if the power went out, there would be no lights to see by (except, of course, during daylight hours). On the other hand, I think it is a good rationale for learning to write with pen on paper; I just don’t think that EXCELLENT handwriting is essential, or even particularly important.

    Do I need to mention that my handwriting, except when I am concentrating and writing r-e-a-l-l-y s-l-o-w-l-y, is virtually illegible. . .even sometimes by me?

  • phil dragonetti

    ApK is rite. It make no difference if he say “a” or “an” cause peopel no what he mean anyway. Rite? As long as peopel no what he mean that is all that matter.

  • Karla

    A few years ago, I worked as a Technical Writer for a bank that is no longer in business. I was one of the few “real” writers in the dept. Most of the other “writers” had transferred from another dept. and had no formal writing education or experience. They were hired simply because they new banking practices and terminology. So, although it could easily have been an oversight, I’m not surprised at all that the wrong article was used. (What does it matter? It looks unprofessional. Would you trust a dentist to clean your teeth who said, “I think I’ll try this dohinky here to scrape off the whatchamacallit…”)

  • Thomas Tally

    Several friends of mine insist that the use “on accident” is just as valid as “by accident”. Ouch!

  • Jon

    “Writing” is used with two distinct meanings. One is the physical act of putting an implement onto a page. The other is the mental activity of putting words and sentences together in a grammatically correct order to express something clearly.

    Learning cursive handwriting helps with the former, but not with the more generally applicable latter. It may make it easier to progress with literacy but is not a prerequisite.

    In the same way as learning the mechanics of touch typing will not help teach someone grammar or spelling, but will make it easier to progress.

    (Sorry Rob, I’m not convinced about the benefits of learning Latin in order to inform English grammar, but then again I never learned Latin; Latin as a foundation for basic grammar education is a whole different discussion…)

  • Brad K.

    Jon,

    I am minded of the difference between education for an engineer, and training for a technician.

    An engineer (engineering: Design to cost) is educated to understand the history of development of technology, the physics and chemistry of materials, the thinking of greats in the field, etc. That is, a broad based education to serve as a foundation for an engineer to build on the accomplishments and strivings of the past and present, to produce insights and inspirations for today and tomorrow.

    A technician learns the basics of system thinking, troubleshooting, the theory of correct operation and mechanics of construction of the particular equipment, structure, or construct he/she is trained to keep operating.

    One could argue that a citizen of a nation requires the ability to read and speak the language at a technician level – to understand the gist of public news, political discourse, world, national, and local happenings and history, enough science and math to live sensibly in the environments of civilized nature and tax collecting.

    The scholar would invest in the background and insight into language, into history, social dynamics, geography and science, etc. in order to serve as foundation to inspire and provide insights into the humanities, into the nature of civilization, and into overlooked assumptions and errors about life.

    In a classless, or supposedly class-less egalitarian society, we don’t begin the education process with students already identified as to which will be the scholar or engineer, which will be the technician. Thus, it makes a bit of sense to bring in some of the aspects of training an engineer or scholar at an early age, and to all students, so that none of the engineers or scholars are “lost” – and the reality is that the greater depth of understanding among technicians, housewives, and “mere” citizens tends to grow and stabilize a nation.

    The more the “mob” understands about history, the lying of politicians, the realities of economics and capitalism, the more likely dissatisfaction will turn to election cycles instead of burnt-to-the-ground riots.

    Where does that leave us scholar wannabes? Self-educating ourselves about language, questioning the assumptions and accommodations about our society in the form of examining the language we use.

    Let me suppose that each person that uses language correctly, is not just one less person perpetuating errors, but is an active example, from day to day, to three or four others to use language correctly. Let me suppose that incorrect language usage spreads just as insidiously and thoroughly as coarse word usage.

    And don’t get me wrong about using terms like “correct language”. Correctness is always measured against a standard. When the topic is insight into language usage, there is a nearly-agreed upon, mythical in some sense, generally acknowledged “proper” English. Adherence or deviation from that one sterling dialect is what I mean by correct usage. In certain circumstances failure to use the local dialect can get you ostracized, hurt, or killed, which would be “incorrect usage”.

    Learning about standard, or proper, or correct English is a near-hopeless task without end. Yet the better a few people understand, the more likely that people from different regions and backgrounds can discourse on related problems. Keeping a lid on misuse of language, and keeping usage closer to standard, lets us communicate problems and look for solutions in common. Difficulties in communicating clearly often lead to unfortunate encounters, from missed opportunities to help or succeed or solve problems, to feuds and wars.

    This isn’t a quiz. But in a way, continuing interest in science, or language, or politics, or geography, or biology or gardening – these can also be seen as homage to teachers that helped shape our lives. We can invest a bit of attention, beyond subsistence, in the interesting worlds of scholarship that some teachers are delighted to impart.

    And it might be we just don’t want to sound like a clod in front of people we respect.

  • Charlotte Firbank-King

    When I was at school, a million years ago, we had a rule for a and an that could sometimes be applied. if the word following began with “H” then it was an: an hotel, an historical event. I do believe this is now outdated, but I fail to understand how we can work without some sort of guidline. go by gut feel, I guess.

  • Maeve

    @ ApK
    I’ve addressed your question “Why does correct usage matter?” in more than one post. I think you may be looking for an argument for standard usage that will persuade everyone. There isn’t one.

    Just as some people leave dirty diapers in parking lots, and drop trash on the ground within a few feet of a bin, not everyone sees the value of being a caretaker of the language.

    Brad K makes some excellent points about the relativity of language use. The technician does not require the same facility with language as the creative writer or the scholar. For the most part, American public education is geared to the needs of the technician.

    Those of us who recognize the value of cultivating more than one version of our native language should go ahead and do it, without worrying about how to answer the objections of people who don’t see the point. Not everyone requires or desires the same mastery of language. Parents who value a higher than minimum level of literacy must be prepared to monitor their children’s education and supplement it as necessary.

  • ApK

    >>I think you may be looking for an argument for standard usage that will persuade everyone. There isn’t one . [ . . .] Those of us who recognize the value of cultivating more than one version of our native language should go ahead and do it, without worrying about how to answer the objections of people who don’t see the point. Not everyone requires or desires the same mastery of language. <<

    Maeve, I think you might be right. I probably I need to trust my own answers and reasons and communicate them to my own kids, and not worry about convincing others, the same way that I'd subscribe to my own mortality and code of ethics without trying to be a missionary about it. I guess that's the difference between being a 'caretaker of the language' and 'grammar police.'

    I'm curious about you all feel should happen, though, if anything, when you face people in a position of influence who claim that, for example, the SATs language tests are unfairly biased, because they use standard English, and not the street talk that many inner-city kids are immersed in? Like this guy:

    http://beta.wnyc.org/shows/bl/2010/aug/06/unfair-sats/

    ApK

  • ApK

    Mortality? That was supposed to be morality.

    Yikes, I’m lost with out an edit feature.

  • Brad K.

    ApK,

    What to tell those that worry about bias on the SAT’s? That is easy for me.

    The SAT is a general survey to determine preparation for an unknown college. College core courses tend to be pretty conservatively standard. State and US history texts, let along history of literature, tend to rely on competence in standard English.

    Those that feel the SAT is biased to punish those well-read only in their local dialect – street slang, non-English communities, etc., are quite correct. The SAT does nothing to measure intelligence or the worth of a person. The intent, at least at first, was to measure preparation for college. Just as learning about 3.1415926 and Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too is expected, so is competence in that weird dialect, standard English.

    Students unprepared for the material affect the classroom. It is to the college’s advantage to ascertain that students intending to enroll have put the energy into meeting entrance expectations, and that they can master the academic expectations of students. Unprepared and challenged students divert instructor attention, slow or decrease the material presented, and may bring emotional turmoil or outright disruption to the classroom. This decreases the value the school offers the rest of the students in the class – and can affect the overall value that the school has to offer.

    If a student isn’t willing to change their beliefs and views, to evaluate other views and insights, then they aren’t ready for college. That very resistance to adapting to (arbitrary) standards and expectations is telling, and an important part of what the SAT is meant to reveal. Resistance to change, defiantly clinging to a neighborhood or family dialect, is not part of successfully preparing for college.

  • venqax

    If a student isn’t willing to change HIS beliefs and views, to evaluate other views and insights, then HE ISN’T ready for college. 🙂

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