Category Archives: Pedantries

More Taboo Than Religion or Politics: Correcting Grammar and Coining Money

I guess I would not be much of a blogger or grammarian if I did not write something about Jared Loughner and his rantings about grammar.

So…

I first saw his views on grammar and a few other subjects at YouTube a little after his murderous rampage in Tucson. He made about four videos which include a good deal of  silliness about the U.S. Constitution, Pima Community College police, currency standards and other such stuff, but he also made a number of comments about grammar.

Here is a taste of what he posted at YouTube:

Don’t be scared to know you can’t

find the location of a subject. Most

students can’t locate the subject!

Most people know all the subjects

are for mind control and brainwash!

The students are unconstitutionally paying

for free education!

The students are attending a torture facility!

You know the teachers are con artists?

It seems as though Loughner has been given some fairly basic instruction on how to identify subjects and verbs which is pretty standard stuff in entry level composition courses, Oddly enough, Loughner seems to see grammar as being akin to mind control, and I cannot say I disagree with him entirely on this point. But Loughner takes his critique a bit further and maligns community college teachers as “con artists” in an unconstitutional institution. I have been called much worse on most days, so I will endure the insult and point out that people such as me are clearly threatening to Loughner’s sense of self and are part of the crew who have tortured him.

I am well aware that there are few things in this world as irritating as someone who tries to correct your subject/verb agreement or tells you that “ain’t” is not a word or provides some other nonsensical insight into your speech or writing, but Loughner’s response goes beyond annoyance and attempts to identify grammar instruction as a clear threat to himself and other students.

Oddly enough, Loughner’s critique of grammar instruction is quite similar to his view of money production. He places people who teach issues regarding subject identification on par with those who mint money for the treasury. Here are some of his thoughts on how he will get around the people who print off the money and press out the coins we use:

If I’m thinking of creating a new coin

that’s in my control as treasurer then

I’m thinking my new coin is starting a

new currency system.

I’m thinking of creating a new coin

that’s in my control as a treasurer.

Hence, I’m thinking my coin is

starting a new currency system.

Evidently Loughner sees coining his own money as being an important step to freeing himself from the economic constraints he feels bind him. Behind his anger against his grammar teachers and his scheme for producing his own currency is a mistaken notion that he can ultimately free himself from the limitations that come with these two systems of communication. Each day we communicate with each other through words and money, so fiddling with someone’s spoken and written language is not that much different than fiddling with someone’s money. The people who try to manipulate language and money are the true threats, at least in Loughner’s mind, and are guilty of the worst crimes against humanity, including torture and mind control.

Loughner mentions religion and politics at times in the videos, but these two subjects do not rouse nearly as much anger in him. His ranting focuses on grammar and money because these two areas are so much a part of our views of ourselves and our relations to others.

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Anxiety Envy

My college offers classes that help students deal with math anxiety, and I imagine many other colleges offer similar classes for their students. I have taught math to basic skills students and know these classes are necessary. I have, however, never seen any classes offered for grammar anxiety.

Oddly enough this makes sense. Even though students come to the college with grammar skills in just as poor shape as their math skills, I have not seen students demonstrate the same levels of apprehension with English grammar as they have with math. It seems this situation is related to how the different subjects are perceived by the students.

Math is more intimidating and often seen as something of a foreign language that students cannot comprehend without careful study, while English grammar strikes students as being more familiar and is perceived as being a series of isolated rules.  A college course in English grammar should cover those rules that we all covered in high school, right?

Most students know that a partial understanding of a certain concept in mathematics can get you into a good deal of trouble since you get no credit for  a close but incorrect answer. There might be different approaches to factoring a polynomial or solving for y, but there is only one correct answer at the end of the problem. This idea that you need to learn it all before you can do the problem correctly is what makes some students anxious. In most cases, the anxiety can be alleviated by helping students learn how to break the problems down into workable segments that they can handle. There is no magic to this approach.

My sense is that students are not inherently more capable with English grammar than with mathematics. Students use English more often in daily conversations and in text messaging than they use basic math skills to pay bills or balance checkbooks, but these forms of English usage only act to reinforce simple grammatical structures and make learning grammar at a more sophisticated level more difficult. Chatting with your friends online or sending a few dozen text messages prepares students for understanding English grammar about as well as operating a cash register prepares students for college algebra.

Most students I work with come to a grammar class thinking they already know the English language because they have been using it for as long as they can remember. There really is no issue with anxiety since the students do not realize how little they know about the workings of their mother tongue and how wrong many of the “rules” they were taught in high school really are.

And that is why I am somewhat jealous of the math teachers who often confront a room with many students who are anxious about what they are about to learn. The students know that they do not understand math on the first day. They know learning math is more than memorizing a series of petty rules. And they know it is going to take practice to learn the material.

The students I work with often bring simple rules to the class regarding where to put commas or apostrophes, and these rules must be thrown out before the students can learn how the language actually works. Often these “rules” need to be thrown out again and again. If they do not master the new materials, they fall right back on the old useless “rules” they learned from a teacher who never bothered to show them how simple questions can often have more involved answers and require a more developed understanding.

And so I envy the math anxiety that many math teachers encounter on the first day. Anxiety is, at least, a sign that the students know learning the language is not such a simple matter and is going to require some effort.