Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Ramblin' Bloggin' and Drinkin' Rhubarb Soda

This blog post is a reaction to three to things (a) a focused and interesting conversation I had this morning with an English student (b) Mr. Taleb's "philosophical note" #136 which comes off a little bit rambly and (c) an extremely tart and sour rhubarb soda from Eataly.

Quick summary: Mr. Taleb finds economists unethical and I wonder to what extent this variety and degree of ignorance is at all related to the destructive powers of grammarians and English educators.

How did this all come up today? Listening to Mr. Obama talk to some folks at UW-Madison on NPR with my English student, he said 'askin' instead of 'asking.' My English student and I talked about this and a few related issues.

The issue I'm talking about here is this: whenever people try to comment on this phenomenon-educated individuals!-they reveal a great deal of ignorance. Here is a very beautiful old blog post from Mark Lieberman at Language Log addressing this.

Mark Lieberman links to Geoffrey Pullums not-unrelated discussion of passive voice and its misunderstandings. Basically, I think the world needs some kind of gamechanging "Blackswan" of grammar for adults. I could be the GrammarBlackswan. Why didn't they ask for my ID when I purchased my rhubarb soda?
It's not the slightest bit unusual for educated people who are excellent writers to be unable to state grammatical generalizations correctly. And as Mark recently wrote here, "It's partly our fault because we've allowed the educational system to turn out PhDs who think and write like this... We've come a long way since grammar, rhetoric and logic were viewed as the trivial foundations for any other sort of education." Sunk a long way, he could have said.

Grammar is hardly taught at all these days. Almost everything most educated Americans believe about English grammar is wrong, and hardly anyone even controls a system of grammatical terminology that makes any sense. It is to at least some extent the fault of my profession. We theoretical linguists do not generally deign to do applied analysis of discourse or propaganda ourselves, or assist in it; and we do so little teaching of basic grammar of relevant kinds to a broad audience that the prevailing conception of grammar in the English-speaking world has hardly changed in a hundred and fifty years. It is perfectly sensible to attempt to discern psychological states of an author (like refusal to accept responsibility) from examining the use of particular kinds of grammatical construction in a text; but it generally gets done by people who do not have a sufficient grasp of grammar to permit the analysis they seek to understake. You can hardly blame them. It isn't like they're forgetting things that other people know. It just isn't true that everybody with an advanced degree will have had at least one coherent course on English grammar. Things are likely to stay this way until grammar teaching changes, or textual analysis with writers on politics and society is done in collaboration with grammarians .
Comments on these issues are welcome.

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