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What Happened to Grammar?

February 18, 1988|JOSEPH N. BELL

It has occurred to me frequently during 20 years of teaching nonfiction writing in the English department at UC Irvine that the people of my generation received a better education in certain basic areas in high school than most college graduates receive today. One of those areas is English grammar.

I have had three quite different generations of students--representing the turbulent 60s, the somnolent 70s and the earnest 80s--but they have all had one quality in common: little more than a nodding acquaintance with English grammar. From Vietnam radicals to Reagan reactionaries, virtually none of them have known an antecedent from an ampersand or a misplaced modifier from a dangling participle.

Right to the end, I approached each new class with hope that all this tough talk about getting back to the basics in both the lower grades and high school would somehow manifest itself in my classroom, and I could actually try to teach composition from the start instead of remedial grammar.

Since I like to know what I'm facing, about 15 years ago I put together a brief grammar quiz made up of the most common grammatical errors I was finding in my student papers. I distribute the quiz on the first day of each class and give the students 10 minutes to do it. The instructions are simple. The students are told to correct any clear violations of the common rules of grammar or good English usage they find in the following six sentences.

At the risk of raising the ire of every grammarian--amateur or professional--who reads this, here are those six sentences:

1. Driving into town, the billboards distracted her attention.

2. If the family wants to stay, they can go to a hotel.

3. Riding a bike and the joy of a book are my favorite leisure time pleasures.

4. His early morning rising at 6:30 a.m. cleared his head for the day.

5. He seemed totally indestructible after surviving the fatal accident where two of his friends were killed.

6. Once he began to fear his opponent, it was very inevitable that he would lose.

Although the students weren't told this, there are nine rather egregious errors in these sentences, all represented frequently in student papers. Of the 700 or so students to whom I've given this quiz, just one has found eight of the errors over all those years. And just five students have come up with seven of the errors. The norm is three to four. I've had many University of California students--the cream of our school system--who couldn't find two mistakes in these sentences. And that's a pretty depressing way to start a new quarter of teaching.

The students usually complain bitterly that the test is unfair, but when I press them on why, about the best I can get is that although they wouldn't make these mistakes in a piece of writing, they just can't see them in this kind of format.

Well, the fact is that they do make these mistakes in their writing. And keep on making them.

One year the complaints were loud enough that I took the quiz home and gave it to four house guests of my vintage, none of whom had ever been to college. They got three eights and a seven.

That hardly would stand up as a legitimate survey segment, but it underscored what I already believed: that either English grammar was much better and more thoroughly taught when my generation was going to public school or that TV and computers have so thoroughly scrambled the brains of today's young people that they can no longer absorb basic written language tools.

So every year, I tell my students to buy a copy of Strunk and E.B. White's "Elements of Style" and keep it close at hand the rest of their lives. If just one-tenth of them have actually done it, think of all the unreadable business letters and committee reports I've prevented.

Makes all those tough weeks of parsing sentences in Mr. Makey's 11th-grade English class at South Side High School in Fort Wayne, Ind., seem worthwhile.

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