11 February 2011

Them Grammar Lessen

An article in The New York Times regarding current trends in the teaching of biology in the U.S. leads me to wonder what would happen if a similar approach applied to other subjects in the classroom. To learn the answer, I needed only to sit in on a typical English class; what follows is my faithfully accurate transcription of the day’s lesson.


“All right, boys and girls, take out your books, please. Today we’re going to talk about English grammar. Now, before we go any more far, can any of you tell me why we study English grammar, even though we ain’t English?”

A hand goes up: “Because we’re required to by the federal government?”

“That’s right. But remembers, boys and girls, grammar is only a theory. Can anyhow tell me what a theory is?”

Another hand: “It’s just one person’s opinion.”

“That’s right. I know many of you growed up in homes what don’t believe in no grammar. I’m not going to told youse you got to use it. That is a choice for your parent to made. But grammar be one way of doing thing.”

Another hand: “My momma says I don’t have to ever use no grammar, so long as if I get home-schooled for my college educating.”

“Very good! Between you and I, college educating are going to probably be out-sourced in countries foreign, anyway, by the time what you all growed be.”

Another hand: “Miss Babbitt, what be ‘countries foreign’?”

“That don’t matter none, Cindy. They’s just places what Jesus don’t love so much. But you ain’t never gonna need to knowed about that, for what youse be American, what am the most betterest country ever.”

The children cheer, and the teacher continues: “That be whereto I are having faith that, when youse be growed, you could made you-self understanded to be, even what you grammar not ever use and up-mess syntax yours all. Counts what is which that God understanding can all times you.”

Another hand: “Sin tacks what be?”

“Restriction liberty of personal, cigarette tax like. Oppression big over speech of freedom is.”

Another hand: “Jesus hates sin, and Jesus hates taxes, so we should hate syntax, right?”

“Right exacted! Boys now girls and, be what participle a?”

Another hand: “Unimportant?”

“Plumb nearly. Other guess at participle be which?”

Another hand: “Boring?”

“Yes! You thunk good that once, Johnny.”

Another hand: “Miss Babbitt, didn’t Jesus use grammar?”

“Now where heared you that at?”

“Some of them older boys was talking after church.”

“You disappoint! Reporting at principal office, young lady! Names me wanted of them boys! Get now to marching gone!” The teacher pauses. “Boys now girls and, to learning how sentence diagram we be.”

A hand shoots up: “But Miss Babbitt, Preacher says diagrams is a sign of the Devil!”

The teacher reflects for a moment. “Pentagram, he maybe wanting to mean, but same difference. Closed your books, children: it be time to burn ’em.”


Yohalem said...

You never learn your own language's grammar -- you never learn that your own language HAS grammar! -- until you study a foreign language and realize all those strange words and syllables are sort of doing the same thing you do with the familiar ones.

"For while others are instructed in their native language, English people AREN'T... and in America, they haven't used it for years."
(Alan Jay Lerner, but you knew that)

William V. Madison said...

@ Mr. Yohalem -- That was certainly my experience of grammar lessons: I received almost none whatever until I began to study French. If my English grammar was already pretty good, it's because I had the good fortune to grow up with parents who spoke correctly.

And yes, I do know "Why Can't the English?" -- I had been listening to My Fair Lady just a few days before I wrote this. Perhaps that's why I turned to this example to point out the flawed methods of teachers who don't recognize the difference between public school and Sunday school.

Anonymous said...

Born and reared in W. Va. - probably had the best possible preparation for college with respect to grammar and English composition. It's time to pick another group to blame for vanishing standards in education. I doubt you'd be very amused if some other group was stereotyped and pilloried as you've done. I enjoy your blog, but this is unseemly.

William V. Madison said...

Naturally I'm dismayed by your response -- not least because I'm not sure what group you think I'm pillorying. I attempted to make the piece apply as generally as possible, even (as indicated above) incorporating some of Eliza Doolittle's grammatical lapses, which are hardly specific to West Virginia. In any case, if your teachers succeeded as you say they did, then it's not of them that I speak, is it?

And to return to my original point: while I respect the value of Bible lessons, I'm unlikely to stop aiming satire at people (any people, anywhere) who think science class is the appropriate venue in which to teach them.

Polymath said...

Do you remember George Bernard Shaw?
He asked,

How do you pronounce "ghoti"?

The answer is "fish":

"gh" as in tough
"o" as in women
"ti" as in nation

So grammar is in inextricably interwoven with spelling, and of course, with the choice of the 'right' word.

William V. Madison said...

Thanks for the amusing citation, though to tell the truth, I don't quite see the link between spelling and grammar (except that fewer and fewer people seem to care about either).

Meanwhile, I had hoped with this piece to satirize current practices in the teaching of science in the U.S. But in attempting to point out how ridiculous it would be if grammar were taught the way science is being taught, I seem to have distracted too many readers from my real purpose.

Perhaps I should have heeded the warning of another distinguished playwright: "Satire is what closes on Saturday."