Friday, April 12th, 2013

Whose able to write at a college level?

Microsoft Word knows the difference between “whose” and “who’s”:
Okay, this is just petty, I admit. It’s the kind of thing that if posted on Facebook could get me unfriended.

If you write something like this:
I can read and write at a college level. I could do it in the eleventh grade, because of one teacher…
Actually I don’t think this friend is that sensitive, so if he sees this, he’ll probably be a good sport about it.

You might want to be sure never to write anything like this:
My interviewer, whose been on TV longer than I’ve been…
What triggered my pettiness? It’s that my friend bragged about being able to read and write at a college level, but while his writing may well be representative of that of the typical American college student today, it’s not really something to brag about.

I’ve pledged never again to correct anyone’s use of “it’s” as the possessive form of “it.” And recently I’ve decided to no longer post on Facebook (more about that in a later post). However, I’m not yet giving up saying what I want on my own website.

Thus when I saw that my friend, who can read and write at a college level, clearly doesn’t know the difference between “who’s” and “whose,” I just had to write about it. I could have been snarky in a comment on his blog, but I’m restraining myself just a little and writing here instead.

Do you not yet write at a college level and thus not know when to use “whose” and when to use “who’s”? Google is your friend and can point you to pages such as this one where you can learn this “college level” bit of English grammar.

Saturday, November 5th, 2011

Grammar loses it’s battle against “it’s”

Between you and I

Do you hyper-correct yourself and say “between you and I” because you remember being told “Always put yourself last” and so you think you always have to say “and I”?

A trick I remember from junior high is this: remove the “you and” to see whether “I” or ”me” sounds correct in an objective phrase.

You’d never say, “Give it to I” or “It’s a present from I” or “The cat is sitting on I,” would you? (If you would, you’re beyond help.)

The rules of English grammar that call for prepositions to be followed by an object don’t suddenly disappear when you’re joined by someone else, which is why, even if you don’t know what a preposition or an objective pronoun is, you should know that “between you and me” is correct.

I’m a grammar and spelling geek and always have been. I paid attention in junior high English class when the teacher taught tricks such as the one to the right, but I also never really needed to study English grammar — it just came naturally to me, perhaps because I’ve been a voracious reader since I was very young. And therefore grammar and spelling mistakes jump out at me.

In junior high, at least when I was in junior high, English class was all about prescriptivism. Junior high English teachers (or I guess these days they’re “middle school” English teachers) try, in vain, to drill into their students’ heads the rules of English grammar. Do this, don’t do that, this is right, that is wrong, if you do it this way you’ll get an A, if you do it that way, you’ll get marked down. No wonder most kids hate English class, and no wonder most kids end up either not learning the grammar rules of their native language or remembering only pieces of rules which for the rest of their lives they then apply incorrectly without understanding them. (Why do you say “between you and I”? Um, because my junior high teacher told me to? No, she didn’t!)

Something I learned in college about grammar is that in addition to prescriptivism there is also descriptivism. In other words, part of grammar is indeed trying to get people to follow common rules when using language (which is good, because it helps us to understand one another), but a larger part of grammar is describing and understanding the ways in which our use of language evolves. Languages change over time, and no amount of prescriptivism can prevent that. Failing to acknowledge this only causes prescriptive grammarians ongoing annoyance and pain.

What kind of pain? The pain caused by endless examples of misused grammar. Perhaps you see dead people everywhere; at heart a prescriptive grammarian, I see broken grammar rules and misspelled words no matter what I’m reading.

A common example in American English is the incorrect usage of “it’s” (it apostrophe s) as the possessive form of “it.” Americans, learning to speak our variety of English, learn that apostrophes indicate possession and so we think that the way to make “it” possessive is to tack on an ’s. David → David’s car. Katrina → Katrina’s cat. Jesus → Jesus’s crucifixion. (Or is it Jesus’ crucifixion? — that’s another debate.) Thus many Americans, having dozed through junior high English classes, think this is perfectly okay: it → it’s.

You can find possessive “it’s” everywhere.

Of course you can see it on comments on blogs and YouTube. A guy on Gawker said, “Target is covering it’s ass here.” Someone on YouTube described a video of his pet squirrel as “A video of a baby squirrel I found abandoned by it’s mother.” I didn’t go searching for these examples but came across them while surfing the net over the past few weeks.

Accompaniment at It's Best, an example of the new possessive it from Global Ministries
Global Ministries endorses
the new possessive form
of “it”
But possessive “it’s” is also in more serious places.

Last Sunday my church celebrated Global Ministries Sunday, and our bulletin had an insert that trumpeted, ”Accompaniment at It’s Best!” (A prescriptive grammarian must have tipped off Global Ministries because someone there has since corrected the bulletin insert online.)

This morning my sister emailed our family my nephew’s middle school’s newsletter, which reported that “Tecumseh Middle School held it’s annual magazine fundraiser”:
Tecumseh Middle School provides an example of the new possessive form of it

And that’s when I realized that the battle for “its” is well and truly lost. If our middle schools have endorsed the new possessive form of “it,” we must acknowledge that “it’s” is now a part of standard American English.

Thus I hereby pledge never again to correct anyone’s use of “it’s” as the possessive form of “it,” and I apologize to those, such as David Esrati, whose use of possessive “it’s” I’ve corrected.

I’m hoping that we can allow both possessive forms of “it” to co-exist, at least for my lifetime, because I won’t ever be able to bring myself to write something like, “The company should review it’s policies” — I’m old school enough that I’d have to write, “The company should review its policies.”

However, just between you and me, I still won’t be as accepting of some other grammar usages.

Update 11/15/2011: The new spelling of the possessive form of “it” permeates the corporate world too. Dayton area accounting firm Flagel Huber Flagel & Co, in its official press release announcing its merger with Dohner Louis & Stephens, used the “it’s” spelling:

Saturday, September 2nd, 2006
I start to remember in shards, pieces of glass that rip my skin and leave marks. I find tight little cuts all over: one on my left breast, grazing the nipple, and one that starts just below my left eyebrow and turns across my nose to the light brown line of my upper lip. Another is on my back, burning from the base of my spine over the soft roundness of the right cheek of my behind. Yet another one, trying to scab, unable to heal, is buried on my scalp. These are the memories like a broken bottle, memories I can't speak because the glass gets caught in my throat, ripping it, too. I circle these glinty flashes from above for days, weeks, before I can find a way to sit down with them alone in my room, in front of the computer. From my lofty perch they appear minor, mere scratches; it is only when I look closely that I seem them for what they are: self-mutilations and battle scars.
My last blog entry was in part about some bad writing I'd come across, so perhaps it's appropriate that this one be about some writing I am really liking. I'm reading Black, White and Jewish: Autobiography of a Shifting Self, by Rebecca Walker. I'd never heard of Rebecca Walker until I took an English class where I read stuff by her mother and learned about feminist criticism and third wave feminism (which is where Rebecca Walker's name came up) and gender studies and other stuff. Doing research on Alice Walker for a project, I found that she'd been married to a white Jewish civil rights lawyer in the 1960s and that their daughter, Rebecca, had written an autobiography. I didn't have time to read it then, but I do now.

I've only just begun to read it, and though I'm not black, white and Jewish, nor a woman, nor have I lived in the South or New York City, I, like Walker, was born in the 60s and grew up in the 70s, and I remember Big Wheels and Baby Alive and Bubblicious and reading Forever by Judy Blume. And I remember having the right answers to teachers' questions in class and learning slowly that that didn't endear me to the other kids, and I remember having to deal with kids who wanted to beat me up, and I remember having crushes on boys who weren't interested in people like me. And I remember my parents divorcing and my mother needing comforting and being among my father's relatives who didn't know my mother or understand her. And I remember spending lots of time quietly observing people around me, trying to figure out the right way that I was supposed to act and respond.

My childhood wasn't horrible, and not all my memories are shards of glass, but I definitely get what Walker is saying, for I do have bits of broken bottle from the past inside me. She's done a lot of work extracting some of hers. I've done some, but a strategy I've used, for good or for bad, is that of leaving some of the glass alone. Certain pieces have worked their way down inside me, and I can walk around now without even being aware that they're there. Once in a while, though, at unexpected times, say when I shift in a chair while reading a book, a piece of glass inside me moves, and I remember.
Friday, May 19th, 2006
Observing the ballroom packed with the attendees, I noted that racial and ethnic minorities were in the minority, possibly reflecting the multiple layers of discrimination in the GLBT ethnic minority population, who are bombarded by so many possible points of entry into the democratic process in order to improve the enjoyment of civil rights and basic human rights.
What's this cumbersome sentence from? A 3385-word, 21-paragraph report written by a member of Diversity Dayton (and a faculty member of an institution of higher learning here in Dayton) who participated in Equality Ohio's first LGBTA Lobby Day last Wednesday in Columbus. And it makes me tired, on more than one level.

The superficial level is that this sentence offends the inner English major in me. "Racial and ethnic minorities were in the minority?" That's hardly surprising. Except for women, who though a protected class technically aren't a minority of the population, yes, minority groups do tend to be in the minority (although that is changing). Yes, I get that the author of this sentence meant something like, "Racial and ethnic minorities were underrepresented," but couldn't she have said that? What she meant by the rest of that long sentence, I don't even care to try to figure out.

Another level on which the sentence tires me is that it's yet another indication of how things don't change, also on multiple levels. The "LGBT community," at least in Ohio, is a predominantly white affair. There's lots of talk about why that is and little success in changing that. Certainly it's not something easily changed given the intense homophobia among African Americans (though, to be fair, there have been exceptions) especially in black churches.

Something else that's not changing in Ohio anytime soon is the political outlook for queers. Equality Ohio made a big deal about the introduction of a bill (HB 28/SB 331) that would ban discrimination in Ohio based on sexual orientation and encouraged people, including people at home, to campaign for it on Lobby Day. Well no Republicans (count them, zero) have signed up to co-sponsor this legislation, and it has a snowball's chance in hell of passing this session. Californians got their state legislature to pass a law (later vetoed by the Terminator) giving gay Californians the right to marry. In Ohio we're struggling to get our legislature to agree that maybe queers in school do deserve some protections against bullies.

Now I don't want to sound completely like a curmudgeon. It's (usually) better to do something than to do nothing. For a first attempt, Equality Ohio had some measure of success. Over 500 people lobbied their state representatives and senators for equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered Ohioans, and these people were fairly well received. Speaker of the House Jon Husted (in whose district I currently live and who I had the chance to meet earlier this year on another lobby day) attended Equality Ohio's reception the evening before. I heard from a friend about his visit with a Republican who represents the rural district in which he lives, and apparently he (and two of her aides who are Miami of Ohio alums) gave her quite an education on the environment gay students still face in schools. Other friends told me that they feel the anti-bullying bill (HB 276) stands a better chance of having the list of often-bullied groups put back into it.

So I guess when it comes to working for gay rights in Ohio, I'm ambivalent. I'm too tired to be an active participant of a group like Diversity Dayton (I've already done my share of sitting through long meetings), but I'm also glad that there's a new set of young, newly-out queers in their 20s excited about making a difference. I'm just not optimistic about what they'll accomplish.
Monday, April 5th, 2004
I'm a grammar god -- see if you are too According to this Quizilla quiz, I'm a grammar god, which I guess is good since I'm planning on becoming an English teacher!
 
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