7 myths about grammar

A leading journalism professor shares what he’s learned about teaching grammar.

It was a simple exercise in punctuation and grammar at a seminar I was doing for a staff of writers at a prestigious university. In one of the sentences, a participant had removed a set of commas that had erroneously surrounded an essential, restrictive clause. I was pleased until I asked her why she had removed them. “Oh, I hate commas,” she said.

Not surprisingly, she had a master’s in English, and also, not surprisingly, she eventually lost her job.

Organization managers of communications are forever complaining about how the people they hire know little about grammar and the basic rules of punctuation and consistent style. This is true even of people who graduate from journalism schools. What is much worse are all of the “non-writers,” the executives, the engineers, the technicians and those from all walks of corporate life who contribute to publications of all kinds and to Web sites.

For nearly three decades, I taught a magazine editing class to juniors, seniors and graduate students at the Missouri School of Journalism. When I began teaching it, I had no idea how much time I would spend thinking, writing and teaching about grammar. I learned quickly that I could take absolutely nothing for granted regarding how much grammar the students knew and could apply.

For example, when I would discuss reasons for getting rid of the passive voice in most instances, I found that some students could not find the verb. I kid you not.

As a result, over the years (I am now professor emeritus), I discovered all kinds of myths about people and grammar. Here are seven of them.

1. People used to know grammar.

What people? How many people? When was that? If they did once know it, a great many of them have forgotten it. I have taught adults (writers and editors) grammar and punctuation at professional seminars for years, and I still am surprised at how few of them know basic rules of grammar. Granted, some people may once have known it and have forgotten it—at least the vocabulary of grammar. Last week a wonderful, sad woman came up to me and said, “To think, I used to be the nerd in the class who loved grammar. I used to be so good at it, and now I seem to have forgotten most of it.”

2. They don’t teach it any more.

These same people at these seminars tell me this all the time. I’ve not made a study of this, but I have had stepchildren and grandchildren in public schools, and I was always pleasantly surprised by the kind and amount of grammar training they received. I admit that in later years, high school and beyond, there’s little evidence that grammar is taught in any formal or even informal way. There seems to be little review or follow-up, and much, if not all, is lost. I also hear that teachers are afraid of stifling creativity by talking about grammar rules. I won’t touch that argument. It gets me too upset.

3. Only snobs or elitists care about it.

This one also really gets to me. I admit that perhaps few people care about it as much as writers and editors. Nevertheless, whenever I tell people that I taught editing, they tell me about all of the grammatical errors they hear people make and all of the errors they see in print publications. Some people may have just one mistake that bothers them to no end (for example, the use of “like” for “as” or “as if”), but they really become enraged over it. Many people decry what they see as the corruption of the English language.

4. The media are a big reason that English has gone down the toilet.
Whenever people tell me that broadcasters regularly slaughter the English language, I tell them to write down the examples and to send them to me. I’ve not received one. I have argued that in most cases, television has uplifted the language. Certainly, the paid personnel speak better than the general population. I am not speaking of guests and people interviewed.

Similarly, people tell me (on planes I tell people that I sell life insurance— then they leave me alone) their newspaper is just littered with errors. Obviously I can’t speak for small newspapers across the country, but at workshops I have challenged those attending to find one grammatical error or one punctuation error in USA Today or in the city’s paper that day. As a matter of fact, I tell them I will give them $5 for each error they find. I have never paid anyone.

5. It just don’t matter; there really ain’t no rules for grammar no more.

Well, I’m not going to argue with linguistic folks and English professors about this. Not for one second. But anyone who has ever worked on any publication knows that unless there are rules, even for what one capitalizes and what one abbreviates, editors will go crazy. The word is “consistency.”

A publication is passed from editor to editor before it reaches the public. You just can’t have everyone deciding what is OK, or what is correct, or whatever. A publication that is edited inconsistently distracts readers and often has the appearance of being incorrect and untrustworthy. There are rules for what has been called Standard American Written English. That’s all I have ever tried to teach.

Corporate editors have told me repeatedly about how their bosses resent having their copy changed “just” to comply with Associated Press style. Many of them think they should be able to write the way they want to or the way they think they have been taught. Again, much of this does not have to do with grammar but more to do with what is called “style,” what to capitalize, what to abbreviate, how to use numbers, etc.

6. The rules have all changed.

I hear this all of the time. I always ask for an example. Sometimes they are talking about how the meanings of words have changed. Yes, indeed, language evolves. In a general semantics sense, words mean what people think they mean. But will “between you and I” ever be correct?

7. No one wants to learn correct grammar.

Granted, I work primarily with communicators, journalists and writers. But when I suggested to a group that sponsored an annual publishing conference that I do a session on grammar, style and punctuation, those in charge said, who would come? Who would admit that they don’t know this stuff? Well, when they and others schedule such sessions, dozens and even hundreds come. They are most eager to have their questions answered and to go home feeling better about using their language correctly. The most frequent complaint I receive is that the sessions should be longer.

So what is the point of all this for communication managers? Is there anything they can or should do?

First, I would recommend real skills tests before hiring writing or editing staff. It doesn’t matter that a person has a degree in English, even a Ph.D. It doesn’t matter that a person has a journalism degree, even from the Missouri School of Journalism. Give them an editing exercise, and have them turn it in in an hour or two. Don’t send it through the mail or let them take it home. It’s OK, by the way, to allow them to have a dictionary and an AP stylebook. Anyone can have a momentary lapse of memory about how to spell a word or about how to apply an AP rule. But you must set a time limit.

Also, give them a writing assignment. Unless, perhaps, you are hiring a real veteran with years and years of experience, do not rely on clips. Clips have been edited and re-edited, and I hope, re-written a few times. Whose real work are they?

Second, hold regular training and review sessions conducted by a qualified person. These sessions are necessary to get everyone on the same page and to get people revved up and excited about writing. I know, you can say real writers don’t need that, but most writers need reviews and a kick in the pants.

I remember reviewing some stories for the feature writers of the Hartford Courant some years ago. Suddenly, I noticed that it was past 5 p.m., so I apologized for keeping them past their quitting time and stopped talking. Everyone in the room insisted that I continue the critique session. Writers like to talk about writing.

You can do that with your own staff. You can go over material once an issue comes out and celebrate your accomplishments and weep over your failings. A simple technique in coaching writers is to ask a writer or an editor what she or he likes about a piece. Then ask what she or he could do to improve it. If you have never done this, you will be amazed at the insights you will hear. The critique will probably be much better than any you could give—and be much better received.

The truth is that managers accomplish nothing by standing around moaning about how poorly the schools have prepared people for writing or editing. Journalism schools complain and complain that they get students who don’t know grammar. Why don’t they recognize that if they want their students to know grammar, they are going to have to teach them themselves?

I’m afraid organizations are going to have to do the same.

This article is adapted from one that appeared previously in J Alumni News, published by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. —ed.

Don Ranly is professor emeritus of the Missouri School of Journalism where he taught for 32 years. Ranly has worked as a newspaper reporter, a magazine editor, a weekly columnist, a radio host and television producer, director and host. He may be reached at ranlyd@missouri.edu.

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