“He was calm, cool, and collective.”

Ah, a union man, ready to bargain.

Or a one-person flock.

Or a communist farm.

Or a person with multiple personalities!

Or perhaps it’s his habit of mind: advocating control of resources or operations by a body representing the people as a whole.

At any rate, he’s calm and cool, probably very reasonable in any of those roles, and I like him!

All right, what my student meant was that he was calm, cool, and collected.

But this isn’t a typo. Over the years I’ve seen more and more errors that can only be attributed to a lack of familiarity with the written word, a dependence on the ear.

Most recently, I assigned to my first-year writing students what I called a “comprehensive essay.” I called it that because it brought together all the separate activities of the course—research, critical reading, presentation of research, the writing of argument, and of course grammar and style work—into a single, final piece of writing. Comprehensive, right? Students also had to include in their course portfolios a commentary on the experience of writing that paper, and in particular on the paper as a unifying exercise. And 20% of my students referred in that commentary to their “comprehension essay.” These are students with high SAT scores and strong academic records, students with ambitious plans for their futures.

Students who may not really process the unstressed ends of words. Students whose pleasure reading is mostly online, if they do pleasure reading. Students who text. Students who tweet.

A long time ago I had a student who seemed bright, alert, and engaged, but whose writing seemed almost illiterate. It did not exhibit the signs of dyslexia; it was simply a parade of curtailed words—unconjugated verbs, uninflected nouns—that lacked the prepositions and articles that might make some sense of them. Since my student had a strong Southern accent, I tried reading his paper aloud, in an exaggerated generic “stage” Southern accent, and I began to hear his sentences. I added an inner-city spin (his environment). Then, since I knew he came from a somewhat large family, I read it louder, with pauses where prepositions etc. might have been. And there was the sentence. My student’s language was heard language, developed in his own family or neighborhood (who might have been speaking on the basis of their own hearing of their parents’ language) and uncorrected by read language. We began in conferences to address the endings of words (and why), and I pushed him to also read his reading assignments out loud, and by the end of the year he had made reasonable progress toward writing sentences others could read, sentences that more accurately reflected his intelligence.

From this experience I learned to be more sensitive to the influence of the ear on language acquisition not only at the early stages of child development but also through the life of the speaker, and to look to that dimension of language when I encountered strange writing choices or patterns. What I’m finding now is a more frequent manifestation of it, particularly in students whose speech and regional and academic background give little reason to expect it. We can always expect some spelling errors in syllables where common speech has collapsed the vowel sound to a schwa; but more and more they’re also occurring in unstressed syllables at the ends of words. Attentive reading of good and varied writing would have provided the correct spelling, the correct ending, the correct wording, before it even became an issue, and might go a long way toward fixing the misapprehension now…if students were willing to indulge in attentive reading of good and varied writing. But the culture is moving farther and farther away from that.

The vanguard of the composition racketeers might even begin to celebrate the “new” English, as they have for some time been encouraging the teaching of blogging (and now tweeting) as genres in college composition courses; thirty years ago similar cutting-edgers were urging us to take the emphasis off grammar and spelling so that students’ creativity could more freely flow. These arguments are always made in standard academic English, and in well-organized (even before PowerPoint) presentations. Students who followed these scholars’ precepts rather than their examples would be denied participation in the very conversations that concerned them, because they would lack the necessary tools to join the argument.

In a strictly oral culture, comprehension is not so dependent perhaps on unheard, or slightly-heard, elements. My grandparents took me on a tour of Europe, mostly Germany, before my senior year in high school. The languages I studied in junior high and high school were Latin and French; and my grandparents had carefully not spoken German around their own children, wanting to fully embrace their new American culture, so my parents spoke virtually no German and I had grown up hearing no German except the hot gossip and dirty jokes my grandparents and great-uncles and -aunts exchanged at holiday parties (none of which I could understand, of course, which was the whole point). We stayed with relatives in Germany and were there much longer than planned, because my grandfather contracted pneumonia and we couldn’t fly home; during that time I acquired some basic German vocabulary, but no grammar instruction. Lo and behold, I could actually, finally, make myself understood by stringing nouns and base verbs together and sort of grunting in between to sketch in the requisite function, person, and tense endings. Sympathetic relatives and strangers made the effort to make sense of it. What that meant was that by the end of my stay I no longer felt helpless as a speaker or a listener. But I never felt comfortable or confident as a speaker or listener…or at least not until I took two years of German in college and learned the structures and endings that make a vocabulary into a language.

We have to pay more attention to the written dimension of standard English if we don’t want to leave our students, or our students’ children, dependent on stringing vocabulary together with grunts, and incapable of reading with pleasure and writing with confidence. R u ok with that?

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About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

5 responses to ““He was calm, cool, and collective.”

  • Gregory Elbin

    Insightful analysis of the current writing trends. I’ll definitely share this with our English staff at the prep. Writing improves reading and vice versa:)

    • RAB

      I’m still occasionally in touch with that student, by the way. He has a master’s degree and works in an education-related position, and I’m very proud of him. Writing the blog entry yesterday, I was struck by how much intellectual energy he must have had invested in understanding the unexpressed relationships between the words he was hearing as a child–what a bright little boy, and how much easier his young school life (and maybe his whole young life) would have been if he had had that intellectual energy to spare, hadn’t had to use it up just navigating the day-to-day world, could have expended it on higher flights of the imagination and deeper journeys of the mind….

  • solberg73

    Your personal dedication to the fellow you describe giveth me goosebumps. You need to pose for a bust on Teacher’s Valhalla sometime soon.
    And the importance of combining Reading in any language acquisition effort, which I see as a major theme here, is indisputable. I am happy every day that I quietly, behind the scenes, gobbled up the daily paper here daily, re-reading every op-ed until I ‘got’ each reference and sly construction..
    Once again, all hail RAB, a calm, cool Collector of ‘found’ fixables.

  • “Everywhere you go, you’ll indefinitely see people glued to their phone.” | You Knew What I Meant

    […] written before about writers who, not extensive readers, rely heavily on the heard language, and sometimes […]

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