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In Other, Non-Moving, News

I have a gig doing German tutoring, which is fun. I really like my student, and she's working hard and improving. We've moved pretty quickly from Asterix* to Language Book Texts to Bonhoeffer. I hope she brings more of the Bonhoeffer next week -- we got to the point where he was talking about the need to meditate at great length on the life of Jesus, and I kind of want to know what happens next.

Part of what we do is we discuss how language works. She and I are both of the generation that was not actually taught grammar. I'm fortunate enough to have picked up quite a bit, mostly from having started learning a foreign language at age nine, so my own grammar is pretty good. The problem is that I have a very hard time explaining to other people why I make the editorial corrections that I do. Yesterday, we were discussing the passive voice, and we looked in her textbook, which was written by a very well-meaning lady who really wanted you to know exactly how German grammar works, but who assumes that you know as much about grammar as she does. Which relatively few people under the age of forty do anymore.

We learned that the passive voice requires the use of something called a "participial phrase." I deduced that this probably involved something called a "participle," but the only thing I knew about a "participle" was that you're not supposed to dangle it. One quick trip to Wikipedia later, and we had our working definition of "participle," which was "a verb that has been pressed into service as an adjective or an adverb." And then we were able to complete our discussion of the passive voice, which is beloved by Germans, but which English speakers do not like nearly so much.

Language teaching skillz, I haz them!

*I learned German starting with Asterix. My first German sentence ever was "Die spinnen, die Römer," and you will pry my old, beat-up German-language Asterix paperbacks out of my cold, dead hands.


( 9 comments — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
Aug. 22nd, 2013 11:19 am (UTC)
I suspect that my lack of formal grammar training didn't come from education laziness. Instead, I think there was a shift in American educational fashion sometime in the late 70s or early 80s, and students began to learn reading and writing more according to Noam Chomsky's Whole Language theory than to earlier and more structural systems. I remember getting some basic instruction about parts of speech and things like that, but no real serious grammar lessons. A friend who is about eight years older than I am remembers diagramming sentences when she was in school, but I never did that.
Aug. 22nd, 2013 11:16 am (UTC)
It is hard to explain language without using technical terms that no one learns anymore. That's why they get taught stuff like "put a comma where you'd pause" or "never start a sentence with 'because.'"
Aug. 22nd, 2013 11:23 am (UTC)
I'm just glad that I did start learning foreign languages so early. I think that's where most grammar instruction happened at least for kids who went to school in the 80s and 90s. You learn so much about how language works when you're learning a new one.

The other way I picked up a bit more grammar was when I was training with the Little Red Schoolhouse. They do a lot of sneak grammar instruction, and that's where I learned about the importance of word order in English versus cases in languages that have cases.

Is it still true that you don't start a sentence with "because?" I always had the impression that it was one of those rules that was relaxing, and no one ever gave a good reason for it, other than Grammar Says So.
Aug. 22nd, 2013 11:30 am (UTC)
Grammar most certainly does NOT say so. You can start a complex sentence with the subordinate clause, including one introduced by "because." It's a made up rule that's so common people think it's real and look down their noses at writers who do it. If you're working with people who know what they're doing, you can just ignore the "rule" because it's wrong.
Aug. 22nd, 2013 11:44 am (UTC)
Hooray! That rule (or "rule," I guess, since it seems to be much less strict than what my grade school teachers taught) always seemed silly and arbitrary. Some sentences just need to start with "because." Writing must have rhythm, after all. (And, when I write, it definitely has music. All it needs is the man/girl of its choice, and then who could ask for anything more?)

One of the LRS teachers said the same thing was true about split infinitives. You can still teach about what they are using your best William Shatner voice, but you don't always have to avoid splitting them at all costs.
Aug. 22nd, 2013 12:06 pm (UTC)
People talk about descriptive vs prescriptive grammar. Descriptive grammar is what the pros mean. It's the analysis and description of how a given language works. Prescriptive grammar calls for what a speaker or writer "should" do, sometimes counter to the native demands of the language.

Not splitting an infinitive was laid down as a prescriptive rule, I believe in the 18th century, by people who thought of Latin as the ideal language and wanted English to echo it as much as possible. In Latin, as you probably know, an infinitive is one word, so you can't split it. Thus they said English shouldn't split its infinitives either. That demand has been around so long that sometimes you have to follow it not to distract people, but it can make for some barbaric sentences.
Aug. 22nd, 2013 04:40 pm (UTC)
it can make for some barbaric sentences.

"Space, the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to go boldly where no man has gone before."

Yeah, no. That just doesn't work. Some infinitives must be split. There are some aspects of prescriptive grammar up with which we shall not put.
Aug. 22nd, 2013 01:47 pm (UTC)
Welcome to my life. Imagine facing a room of 27 people who have absolutely no idea what a pronoun is and having to explain 5 different types of them.
Aug. 22nd, 2013 04:41 pm (UTC)
Oh, I can imagine it. I've only done it in smaller groups so far, but I can definitely extrapolate to a much larger class.
( 9 comments — Leave a comment )


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