“During elementary and middle school kids are to learn the basics of the English language…”

Let’s not pay overmuch attention to the use of “kids” in a college paper, particularly a paper that is going to lament the imperfection of their learning.

I do like the “are to”: it embraces both “will” and “are supposed to,” and thus both hope and realism.

What follows is a recommendation to make the hope the reality:

“During elementary and middle school kids are to learn the basics of the English language. This tactic needs to be taken more seriously and at a more vicious approach.”

I don’t understand “tactic.” To what is my student referring? Surely learning itself isn’t a tactic, although plenty of tactics have been devised for learning. Is beginning with the basics a tactic? Perhaps. Teaching the basics in elementary and middle school rather than waiting until high school or college: could that be a tactic? Again, perhaps. Whatever it is, it has a clear need: “it needs to be taken more seriously.” Although English does tolerate the use of “needs to” with inanimate objects (probably a capitulation to vernacular usage rather than logic), I continue to be astounded by the servant role students assign to humans, including themselves: the inanimate object needs, and we oblige by fulfilling the need. Why not “We need to take this tactic (still doesn’t make sense, does it?) more seriously”? Surely the actual need is ours. Or even “This tactic is important”?

Once in a while I will bow to the vernacular, but student writers seem to choose this structure and use it again and again. Are they reluctant to bring themselves into the sentence? Or do they begin the sentence with the thing they’re intent on—this tactic, peace, potatoes—and then, wanting to give it urgency but not wanting to try starting the sentence over, make it needy?

Well, on we go, to my favorite part of this sentence. The phrasing “at…[an] approach,” while odd, doesn’t take us very far. Sometimes prepositions seem to drop into sentences simply to fulfill the need for a preposition, regardless of idiom or meaning. Leave it alone for today.

But I am surprised and intrigued by the recommendation of “a more vicious approach.” We’ve taken the switch, the ruler, the dunce cap, the corner, and the cloakroom out of the overwhelmed teacher’s arsenal over the course of the last century, and for what most of us would consider excellent reasons. We’ve tried to give students a stronger feeling of support and understanding in that complex and frustrating endeavor we call “learning.” But this student doesn’t seem to approve of a kinder, gentler classroom: she wants viciousness.

What could she have actually meant? I can’t really believe she envisions the ideal teacher as someone who snarls, smirks, and smites; I’m sure she wouldn’t want us to festoon those cheerful rooms with whips and chains, or grade papers with daggers instead of pens.

One of my students (not this one) told me a few weeks ago that as he’s writing a paper on his computer he routinely left-clicks (or is it right-clicks? I use a Mac and just click) on every tenth word or so to call up Word’s thesaurus for fancier language. If the writer of today’s sentence tried this same tactic (aha!), what could her original word have possibly been? If I start with “vicious” and try the Thesaurus, I get cruel, brutal, nasty, fierce, ferocious, inhuman, violent, sadistic, mean. “Intense” gives me deep, passionate, strong, severe, powerful, concentrated, extreme. From that list I can snatch “severe” and find strict, relentless, powerful, forceful, rigorous, ruthless, brutal, cruel. From that list I can take “cruel” again, and it will offer me, among many choices, “vicious.” But I’m sure she didn’t go on this kind of quest—starting with, perhaps, “strong” and working her way via “strong” or “strict” to “cruel” and then “vicious.” Surely she would have shied away from some of those intermediate choices before making her way to “vicious.”

If I set this bizarre notion aside and search my mental lexicon for sound-alikes instead of mean-alikes, I can dredge up maybe “officious,” a term I don’t think many college freshmen routinely use, and not much else. Help, O literate reader!

Meanwhile I will contemplate a picture of myself as the slave-driver in Ben-Hur’s galley—snarling, pitilessly pounding out the rhythm as my students, chained to their desks, ply their pens and try to learn the basics. Who is the patrician looking on—the Dean? Are those grad assistants in the aisles? “Ramming speed!”

Follow this YouTube link to take a look!

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

12 responses to ““During elementary and middle school kids are to learn the basics of the English language…”

  • jerseechik

    I, a high school English tutor, often read your blog posts with chuckles. Of course I hesitate to comment for fear that my writing style will become grist for your future posts!
    Thank you very much for helping me to see the humor in students’ (and my own) weak writing skills. I’m sure if my students knew how much your satires prompt me to be patient while grading their essays, they would thank you, too.

    • RAB

      Thanks so much for your kind words! Some of my students say they read the blog too! I should guarantee to everyone that my “horrors” come only from papers that have been submitted as “final draft” by students of mine (okay, occasionally from a student newspaper or from a colleague’s papers). I first started copying these gems into a little notebook or into the back of the current gradebook as a way to remind myself to be patient and to appreciate the difficulty of English and the charming resourcefulness (or despair) of people who wrestle with it. That’s the only way we can keep doing this, isn’t it? Happy New Year!

  • yearstricken

    Your poor student probably stumbled through the Thesaural Woods late at night. Words there are not always what they seem.

  • Julie C.

    I wonder. Maybe it’s not the teachers, but the students, who are to take a more vicious approach to the tactic of learning the basics of English. And perhaps a less vicious approach to the tactic of not learning the basics of English.

  • Murphy

    Could the student possibly have meant “a more vigorous approach”?

    • RAB

      Oh, Murphy, now THAT makes sense! I just tried typing “vigous” in Word, to see what Spellcheck would suggest, and got “vinous” and “venous”…and “vigrous” just gets “vigorous”…BUT students do have some persistent wrong ideas about words. “Defiant” shows up far more than “definite” but means exactly the same thing, for example—and although many people blame Spellcheck for that, in fact my students PRONOUNCE “defiant” as “definite,” and make the same error in handwriting. I may have a student here who interchanges “vigorous” and “vicious” in the same way. “Vigorous” certainly does redeem the sentence!

      • RAB

        P.S. If I try “vicorous,” assuming a one-letter typo, I DO get “vicious” as one of the choices…after several other choices, including “vigorous,” but!

  • Dion Benken

    the english language is one of the easiest foreign language that we could learn..

    Very latest posting provided by our own blog
    <a href="http://www.melatoninfaq.com/issues-regarding-melatonin-for-sleep-which-can-be-related-to-autism/

    • RAB

      English isn’t hard to make oneself understood in, if the listener or reader is willing to understand. But actually, EVERY language is difficult to learn to use well. Because of its mixed origins and influences, its huge and constantly expanding word stock, and its multinational usage, English is one of the most challenging. My blog is, I hope, proof of that.

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