We effortlessly acquire language as children, and as the years go by, we spend an astounding amount of time using and interacting with words. But conventional teaching materials often talk about English as if it were an alien tongue that we’re being exposed to for the first time. (That’s literally true – many traditional grammar explanations are an uncomfortable attempt to squeeze English into the rules for Latin.)
Here’s an example. Nobody ever has difficulty with sentences like this one:
Jane helped me.
But what if Jane helped you and someone else? Easy-peasy! Just add the other person’s name to the sentence. Nothing else changes.
Jane helped Carol and me.
Let’s try another one:
I felt grateful to Jane.
What if you want to include Carol’s gratitude? Just add her name. Nothing else changes:
Carol and I felt grateful to Jane.
If you’re an English teacher, it’s easy to teach a class how to do similar sentences. I used to have students pair up to practice – students had fun and caught on quickly. Another handy trick was to bring strips of paper to class so that students could write various kinds of sentences and then pair up to check them.
But if you think students should master traditional grammar, you’ve got a tough road ahead of you. I’ve been reading (rereading, in fact – it’s a great book) Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century.
Although much of Pinker’s information is excellent, his advice about avoiding grammar mistakes is incredibly complicated. If I’d been required to master his system, I don’t think I’d be a professional writer today. He makes it sound so hard!
His method is based on a schematic he calls Trees. You organize words into these Tree patterns, and then the grammatical category tells you which pronoun to use.
Yesterday I tried to create one of these Trees for my “Carol and me” sentence above. It was so tricky and time consuming that I gave up after half an hour. But I did make a simpler Tree so that I could show you what Pinker is talking about:
Pinker wants you to look at you and realize that it’s objective case.
So – in my “Carol and me” sentence – you would think: “Hmmm. I need an objective case pronoun because helped is a transitive verb. I know! I’ll use the objective-case first-person pronoun – me.“
Really, Steven? That’s what you want us to do?
Students are subjected to similar confusion in classrooms everywhere. Result? They decide that they’re not smart enough to master English usage, and they give up trying to improve their writing skills. Smart, creative people with something interesting to say sadly decide they’re not cut out to be writers.
Employees with promising futures decide there’s no point trying to solve the writing problems that are blocking them from promotions. Worst of all, people determined to sharpen their skills spend hours and hours laboring over workbooks and computer programs – and then wonder why their writing doesn’t sparkle and shine.
I have a simple suggestion: Let’s build on what students already know about language. To put it differently: How about applying some common sense to the way we teach writing skills?