Tag Archives: English

Throwback Thursday: How to Make Grammar a Habit

The other night, while brainstorming ideas for upcoming posts, a few other contributors here at The Poetics Project and I began discussing–well ranting, really–about the importance of grammar, which eventually led here:

 “I hate when people mess up grammar when texting for me. I have to send a text that says, ‘That grammatical error was due to the text not being composed by me. I thought you should know.'” – Allison Bellows

“If my boyfriend texts someone for me while I’m driving, I get mad when he forgets a comma.” – Melanie Figueroa (Me)

Now, at this point, some of you may be tilting your head and thinking to yourself, “That’s just ridiculous.” And you’re probably right, but at least let me defend myself and my fellow grammar nazis.

I can’t remember a single grammar lesson from my K-12 days. I’m sure I had them, but so much of the English I speak and write every day was just sort of instinctively imbedded in my brain. I didn’t will it to happen; it just did. I imagine that’s how it is for most people and their native tongue. In high school, the only time my teachers mentioned grammar was after several students made the same mistakes on our papers. It was the same for most of my college career as well. When a few students appeared to have a problem understanding the proper use of a comma, the lessons on run-on sentences, comma splices, subjects, and verbs would begin. But these lessons were abrupt; they didn’t stay with you.

It wasn’t until my senior year at a university that I actually took a English grammar course. After researching the requirements of different types of English majors, I realized that grammar wasn’t even a requirement for most of them, which was pretty depressing, actually. Even though I am pretty sure my professor was the devil himself (he had a thing for public humiliation and torture), I learned more in those few months in his class than I did in my entire life about grammar. My professor was a bit radical in the way he taught the subject. Despite the fact that he had worked at my university for almost thirty years, he had never taught a class on grammar. He hated the typical grammar books with slews of exercises to be assigned for homework each night, and he fundamentally believed that in order to really understand and retain grammar,  you had to use it, properly, every day. By this I mean that he believed if his students were to learn they had to write–not simply complete drills. He also believed in always speaking using proper English grammar. He was quite emphatic when he insisted that if we were to enter a job interview and say something like, “My sister and me–” instead of “My sister and I–” they would laugh us out of their office.

Writing in Another Language is Hard

Being an English major, for me, has always been my calling. I love to read, I love to analyze, I love to argue, and I love to write. English is my native language, so even before I took grammar classes in college, I’d also been a strong reader and writer with few to little errors in my composition.

I am taking Intermediate Spanish Reading this quarter, and I can tell you, as someone who has never struggled with the rules of language or learning new words, this is proving more difficult than I had originally anticipated. Sure, I’ve taken beginning Spanish before, but that was not only two years ago, it was only one course.

I’m learning the grammar of Spanish fast. I’ve found that, because I know the rules of grammar and know how to apply them to English, I’ve been able to take that knowledge and apply it to Spanish. I’ve got nouns, pronouns, conjugating, the different verb forms of be (ser and estar), positive and negative comparisons, heck, I’ve even learned some idiomatic phrases. What I’m lacking in, really, is volume of vocabulary.

I’ve been supplementing my lack of vocabulary with a free online program called DuoLingo. I love it. It’s absolutely fabulous in every way. This program allows you to practice and learn any language you choose. It has English, Spanish, French—you name it. Not only does it have you do repetitive exercises that involve typing new words and phrases in both English and Spanish, saying these things aloud to you, having you speak the words and phrases back to it to make sure you’re doing it right, and offering visuals for people who are more of a visual learner to get new vocabulary down, but it also offers a word bank for you to check your previous words learned, their parts of speech, and their translation. In addition to these features, there’s also discussion boards, a shop where you can spend points you earn by learning your selected language and buy things like idiomatic expressions or flirtations.

Let me tell you about the red whale that ate a chicken, en Espanol!
Let me tell you about the red whale that ate a chicken, en Espanol!

I practice on DuoLingo at least five times a week in addition to doing my Spanish reading and worksheets for class. It’s helped a ton, but I know I’m still not past the stage of early production when it comes to my second language. There’s a reason I took this class, though, and it wasn’t just to fulfill my second language requirements for graduation. I know that language is not solely learned. Indeed, much of it is acquired, and there is a difference. Learning implies that I could read a million books and understand the language. It implies that I will understand every language lesson offered to me as long as I understand the language lesson that came before it. This is not how language works. Our brains acquire a second language much as they acquired our first language—in stages.

The Grammar Rodeo: Committing “Word Crimes”

wordWe have already covered how crazy our language is and have even acknowledged common errors that make their way into our writing on occasion. I have even incorporated some music videos in there to help you remember. Well, here is a post dedicated to one song that covers all of it, or at least most of it.

weird-al-mandatory-funWeird Al, the king of parody, just released his new album Mandatory Fun. The first single was released on Tuesday entitled “Word Crimes,” which is a parody of the Robin Thicke song “Blurred Lines.” In the song, Weird Al goes ultra-grammarian on our asses and hits us with a deluge of said word crimes. This is some serious stuff here. Weird Al educates us on when to use “less” and when to use “fewer,” and he even throws in some informative lyrics on apostrophes. He must have read some of my posts.

Why Study or Write Poetry?

I’m a fan of poetry. I read it, I write it, I talk about it, write about it, and share it as often as I can. I’m also an advocate of poetry being taught to students in primary, secondary, and higher education, even if English isn’t their major.

Poetry offers a lot to the students that study it. Like other literary forms, poetry allows students to analyze and critically engage with the text, but poetry offers something other literary forms don’t—conveying meaning with as little words as possible.

The point of poetry is to convey an image or impression with controlled, specific, and brief language. While I can tell you a story in broad, complex, compound, or complex-compound sentences, poetry shies away from grammar conventions and tries to construct a new meaning of words through the misuse of grammar conventions to make the reader really slow down and contemplate what is being said within the poem.

Reading poetry is like solving a puzzle—and often times, that single poem can paint many true and varying pictures. Developing reading and critical thinking skills through poetry makes one an overall better reader, and these reading skills can be transferred to other realms as well. Being a critical thinker that can see multiple outcomes to the task at hand is a very marketable skill.

Writing poetry is also different than writing a story. Understanding the nuances of poetry can help one become a better story teller because it allows the writer to convey the same message or meaning with fewer words, but it can also help an author make better choices in diction, add rhythm to enhance the flow of a story, and give another layer of meaning to a text that can be picked up on a second, third, or fourth read of the work.

Let me tell you a story:

Why I’m Applying to Humanities Ph.D. Programs Next Year

When I first entered college at the tender age of seventeen, my parents wanted me to pursue a computer science degree, because “computers are the future!” It didn’t matter that I wasn’t allowed to use a computer until I was in high school, or that I still didn’t own a cell phone (I didn’t get my first cell phone until I was twenty-one), or that I really wasn’t all that interested in computer science—computers were where the jobs were, and that’s the point of a college education, right? To get jobs. To my working-class parents, neither of which went to college outside of a few community college courses, college was just a means to becoming a more skilled worker in whatever industry was growing the most at the time I entered.

College is about more than the acquisition of job-applicable skills. More importantly, college is about more than picking a major that makes you marketable to companies; college is about pursuing an education that will put you in the place where you can do the most good in the world.

For me, that’s in the humanities, and I’ll tell you why.

I Strike Thee Quickly with My Light Saber

Star-wars-book-luke-43

Don’t you love when two of your favorite things collide to make one super-awesome thing? Peanut butter and chocolate? Amazing. Rum and Coke? Delicious. Bacon and milkshakes? Well, that might be an acquired taste, but you get the idea. Last year I stumbled upon another exciting marriage of two seemingly opposite things: Shakespeare and Star Wars.

Ian Doescher, who in my opinion should be canonized as a saint, has rewritten the Star Wars films in beautiful iambic pentameter. It is truly a unique way to once again enjoy the saga from a galaxy far, far away.

And I haven’t even mentioned the best part. Doescher has provided an educator’s guide on his website. This is a wonderful way to introduce students to Shakespeare in a new and creative way. Of course you are mixing two nerdy things and that might not fly over so well at first, but the beauty of this lesson is how someone can find deeper meaning, compare themes across genres, and use poetic devices within the text. That covers a couple standards. Even students who are not fans of the holy Trilogy will be impressed at how Doescher transformed one medium by using another.

The Educator’s guide has mini lessons on iambic pentameter, themes, and comparisons between Star Wars and some of Shakespeare’s most famous works (including Henry V, Richard III, Hamlet, Macbeth, and Julius Caesar just to name a few). The guide also includes information on Shakespearean devices and how they are used in context. The educator’s guide legitimately turns a novelty quirky book into an awesome Shakespearean introduction for all students.

How to Become a Better Speller

Even the best writers and editors can be less-than-perfect spellers, myself included (although I am by no means the best of anything). In elementary school, my classmates and I would be asked to study a set of words and then be tested on those words at the end of each week. The words increased with difficulty throughout the year, and being an avid reader even then, I seemed to ace those tests with flying colors.

But over time, our brains become less pliable. We rely on tools like Microsoft Word’s spellchecker instead of testing ourselves, and when we don’t have access to the tool, it’s easy to be unsure of words with tricky spellings. While Microsoft’s spellchecker is an essential tool for any writer or editor, it shouldn’t be relied on entirely. According to The Copyeditor’s Handbook, “spellcheckers do not distinguish between homophones (principal and principle), do not account for spellings determined by usage (resume and résumé), and may allow variant spellings (catalog and catalogue) in the same document. And, of course, spellcheckers do not highlight a misspelled word if the misspelling is itself a word (from and form).”

As an adult, being a good speller means more than getting an “A” on a spelling test. Or being a human dictionary. Good spellers acknowledge their faults. They know their weaknesses—those words that often trip them up. They understand the difference between American and English usage (like dialog and dialogue or color and colour), and then in turn understand that to interchange the two is acceptable in some cases, like with dialog and dialogue—where the British spelling is often preferable.

The Grammar Rodeo: Parts of Speech

 

We have already discussed common mistakes made in grammar, and there are a million posts on blogs about those mistakes littering the Internet. Let’s take it up a notch. Before I jump into any complex or strange rules of grammar that no one understands, I am going to focus on parts of speech today. Sure, you may think you know your parts of speech, but lets just give it a refresher because it is fun to get to know your language on a deeper level. For example, did you know that there is a name for everything? Seriously. You know that little dot above every lower case i and every lower case j? That has a name. It is called a tittle. And since I told you that little bit of useless knowledge you might as well know that the horizontal line that crosses your t is called a crossbar.

Okay, back to parts of speech. Let us start with the most popular members of our parts of speech:

Nouns

A noun is a person, place, or thing. Pretty easy, right? Except I was always caught up by the word “thing” in this definition. It is kind of a catch all term. Really a noun can be anything. That bucket that is outside? That sucker is a noun. This keyboard? You better believe this keyboard is a noun. The screen you are reading this on? Also a noun. You are surrounded by nouns. And you always will be. They are the high school quarterbacks of the English language. Aren’t they dreamy?

nouns and verbs

Verbs

If nouns are the quarterbacks, then surely verbs are the prom queens. Pretty much everybody knows what a verb is. A verb is an action. It is something you can do. Read, write, count, sing, jump, run, sleep, fart, laugh because you farted. All of these are verbs. It is what you are doing. Probably learned these in third grade. Let’s move on to some that you might have forgotten.

Adjective

You don’t have to think about this too hard. If you remember correctly an adjective is a descriptive word. Specifically, an adjective describes a noun. That bucket is large. That team sucks. Your feet smell. You get the idea.

Poetry Slam (Dunk)

A couple of weeks ago the high school where I currently teach hosted a very special event. This is my first year at this school, so I had never heard of nor participated in what I found out was called “Get Lit.” This is an event where local students and young people from around Los Angeles stand on our stage and recite poetry to our students. My first reaction was one of sheer horror. I reached for my riot gear before heading for the auditorium. Surely this would be a disaster. Boy was I wrong.

As awesome as this sounded, I had predetermined that our students would not buy into this event. I have taught poetry for several years now, and I am always met with slight hesitation, and then the students are wowed because they end up “getting” what the poem is about. This, on the other hand, was a poetry slam.

As the slam started the MC, a man in charge of the GetLit program, welcomed the students and gave them a few rules and instructions on manners. His calm and jovial presence made everyone in the audience feel comfortable and excited. He told the students to be respectful, but to express their connection with the poets with snaps, claps, and by interjecting by saying “word” if you agreed. It felt as though we were waiting to see a rock show or a debut of a new movie.

The Grammar Rodeo: English, You Be Crazy Sometimes

Every language has its quirks. For example, it always sounds like you are upset if you are speaking German. In French, everything sounds fancy. Some people speak Spanish so quickly that it sounds like a motorboat. But English takes first prize.

Our language is derived of many different languages. English is comprised of Latin, Germanic, and even French to create an Anglo-Saxon collection of languages. We borrow from many languages to get the mess that comes out of our mouths every day.

This summarizes it pretty well. Strange how you can chop a tree down and then chop it up.