“No Younger People Need Apply”

by Robert Pondiscio
November 27th, 2012

The following help wanted ad appears on Craigslist in Portland, Oregon.

Editor needed…over 70 yrs. old (NOT an EMPLOYEE)

Date: 2012-11-11, 9:39AM PST
qqqrc-3402235700@job.craigslist.org[Errors when replying to ads?]

EDITOR NEEDED FOR LARGE NUMBER OF SHORT STORIES: Must be 70 years old (or older if adequately lucid) THIS IS NOT AN AD FOR AN “EMPLOYEE OR A CONTRACTOR” – AND…NO YOUNGER PEOPLE NEED APPLY! “Why? Simply because I advertised before, received 117 responses. . .and NONE were sufficiently conversant with the English language to achieve an acceptable level of editing. It appears that a preponderance of younger people have not been taught correct grammar and satisfactory writing skills. I have absolutely no interest in going through that exercise again. ENOUGH SAID!…And spare me your castigating comments! It is a waste of your time and mine.

(via jimromanesko.com)

“I Won’t Hire People Who Use Poor Grammar”

by Robert Pondiscio
July 27th, 2012

If you use poor grammar, don’t look for a job at online repair community iFixit. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, CEO and founder Kyle Wiens describes his no apologies approach to hiring. “If you think an apostrophe was one of the 12 disciples of Jesus, you will never work for me,” he writes. “If you scatter commas into a sentence with all the discrimination of a shotgun, you might make it to the foyer before we politely escort you from the building.”

Everyone who applies for a job at Wiens’ companies takes a mandatory grammar test.  “If job hopefuls can’t distinguish between ‘to’ and ‘too,’ their applications go into the bin,” he writes.  Too harsh?  Too bad.  Grammar, he notes, is relevant for all companies.

“Yes, language is constantly changing, but that doesn’t make grammar unimportant. Good grammar is credibility, especially on the internet. In blog posts, on Facebook statuses, in e-mails, and on company websites, your words are all you have. They are a projection of you in your physical absence. And, for better or worse, people judge you if you can’t tell the difference between their, there, and they’re.

But grammar has nothing to do with job performance, or creativity, or intelligence, right?  Wiens is having none of it. “If it takes someone more than 20 years to notice how to properly use “it’s,” then that’s not a learning curve I’m comfortable with.” he writes.

“Grammar signifies more than just a person’s ability to remember high school English. I’ve found that people who make fewer mistakes on a grammar test also make fewer mistakes when they are doing something completely unrelated to writing — like stocking shelves or labeling parts.”

It’s a nice reminder that the real world has its own stubborn metrics for judging how well we prepare our students and how they will be perceived.  Mark Bauerlein made a similar point not long ago about the real world value of cultural literacy.  “It counts a lot more in professional spheres than academics and educators realize,” he wrote.

Wiens’ piece has struck a nerve.  (Wait.  Should that be “Wiens’ piece?”  Or “Wiens’s piece?” I’m suddenly self-conscious)  An astonishing 1800 reader comments have been posted since it went up a week ago.  Many have taken delight in spotting errors made by Wiens himself. “Could I politely point out that ‘to properly use it’s’ is a split infinitive and incorrect?” chides one.  “Why is your company called ‘iFixit’ and not ‘I fix it’ then?” says another.  No small number take issue with Wiens dismissing creativity, leadership, and people skills in favor of mere pedantry.

Maybe so.  But he’s the boss.

Stop Me Before I Teach Again!

by Robert Pondiscio
September 29th, 2010

Miss Eyre willfully engaged in a subversive act at her New York City school–something “so controversial, indeed so dangerous, that it might have cost me my rating.”   Her crime?  She taught the-skill-that-must-not-be-named: writing mechanics.

I photocopied handouts with rules. I circled mistakes on students’ papers. I made them write down proper usages of punctuation marks. I did all that and so much more. And it felt GOOD. In fact, I bookmarked some EXERCISES in a WORKBOOK that I might photocopy and make my students do.

Perhaps she can still be saved.  She is not wholly unrepentant.  Indeed, she seems to understand the depth of her depravity, even if she’s not quite able to control the demons within.  “I’m a terrible teacher,” she confesses.

“I’m supposed to assume that my students will magically figure out the rules of the conventions of the English language simply by being wide-eyed ingenues before the great literature of the world and writing about their lives, this despite the fact that relatively few of them have learned any great life lessons at their tender ages. This is what I’m supposed to do.

But faced with fifteen-year-olds “who can’t use commas properly and aren’t even sure what they are” Miss Eyre has gone rogue, left the reservation.  ”Jeez, what will I do next?” she asks. ”Make everyone in the class read the same story? Force kids not to copy research reports from Wikipedia? STOP ME BEFORE I TEACH AGAIN!”

Teaching grammar.  How can something so wrong feel so right?

Teaching Grammar By Osmosis

by Robert Pondiscio
August 16th, 2010

OK, fess up.  You don’t know what a dangling participle is, and you couldn’t pick the past perfect tense out of a police lineup.  Neither can I.    But you know nouns from verbs.  And you can probably tell the difference between a complete sentence, a fragment, and a run-on.  Consider yourself part of a vanishing breed.  Writing at Betrayed–Why Public Education is Failing, Robert Archer, a high school English teacher in Spokane, Washington estimates that fewer than 10% of his 10th graders have command of basic grammar.

“Honestly, it’s gotten to the point that trying to make my way through the grammatical land mines that await me anytime I assign a writing assessment becomes so painstakingly tedious that even the solid content of any given essay becomes lost in the ghastly-writing-skills shrapnel. (And don’t even get me started on the spelling skills of this generation of non-phonics-learning texters! OMG!)

“When high school students cannot use their own language correctly, their overall communication skills—both in written and oral form—suffer tremendously,” writes Archer, who blames curriculum developers for his students’ poor skills.  Somewhere along the line, he writes “teaching grammar has become something that we teachers can simply ‘imbed’ into the reading and writing curriculum.”  Trouble is, it’s not working. 

“I’m sorry, but in my experience, the term “imbedded” is nothing more than educationalese for ‘not ever specifically taught.’ Somehow, this grammar-is-imbedded movement is supposed to help students naturally take in what proper grammar is (i.e., grammar by osmosis). It’s very much a hyper-constructivist approach to education; the students are supposed to “discover” proper grammar on their own as they read good pieces. Then, somehow and some way, they are to emulate these proper mechanical structures in their own writing. And if the students don’t quite “take it all in,” the teacher may take 2.5 minutes here and there to show them what a damn verb is.”

“When I’m hoping for nothing more than 3-4 grammatically correct sentences being strung together at a time as the sign of a “good” paper, then my expectations have dropped far, far too low,” Archer concludes.  “Yet, sadly, this is exactly to what I’ve resigned myself.”

Preach it, brother.  And teach it.

Crime Pays Royalties

by Robert Pondiscio
January 8th, 2010

Two men who went around the country correcting typos on signs in public places–and ended up being convicted of vandalism for their good works–have been rewarded with a book deal about their exploits.  Jeff Deck of Somerville, Mass. and Benjamin Herson, of Virginia Beach, Va blogged about their grammar-driven crusade as TEAL, the Typo Eradication Advancement League.

The pair were banned from the National Parks for a year and fined over $3,000 after using whiteout and a permanent marker to edit a sign on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon in 2008.  “The overreaction of the government probably helped us a lot in terms of getting this deal,” Herson tells UPI. “It’s one of those true lemonade-out-of-lemons stories.”

They reportedly landed a $150,000 advance to write “The Great Typo Hunt,” which will hit bookstores this summer.

People, Some, With Words Have a Way

by Robert Pondiscio
August 25th, 2009

Law professor and New York Times blogger Stanley Fish describes becoming alarmed about the inability of his students to write a clean sentence–even those who were instructors in his college’s composition program.  What was going on?

I decided to find out, and asked to see the lesson plans of the 104 sections. I read them and found that only four emphasized training in the craft of writing. Although the other 100 sections fulfilled the composition requirement, instruction in composition was not their focus. Instead, the students spent much of their time discussing novels, movies, TV shows and essays on a variety of hot-button issues — racism, sexism, immigration, globalization. These artifacts and topics are surely worthy of serious study, but they should have received it in courses that bore their name, if only as a matter of truth-in-advertising.

Unless writing courses focus exclusively on writing they are a sham, Fish writes.  Colleges, however, aren’t the culprit. The damage is done long before.  If he were to look in elementary schools, Fish might find the same issue, writ small.  Writing instruction–especially in “writer’s workshops” concerned primarily with student engagement and developing a child’s “voice” – tends to be more concerned with teaching a child to have something to say, rather than developing the ability to say it clearly, cogently, or grammatically. 

A commenter on Fish’s blog who works for a testing company describes his amazement ”that a ‘writing’ test often is scored without regard for punctuation, sentence composition or spelling. The instructions provided by the state for scoring these essays makes it clear that these factors should be disregarded.” 

Translation:  The war is over.  The bad guys won.

The Taking of English 101

by Robert Pondiscio
May 28th, 2009

“Dad, what does ’pervasive’ mean?” My daughter asked me the other day.  pelham-1231

“It means something that’s all over.  Like a bad smell.”

“So pervasive language is bad language?”

What had caught her 11-year old eye was a movie poster for The Taking of Pelham 123.  She said the movie was rated R for “pervasive language.”  I was reasonably certain she was mistaken.  Perhaps the poster said “pervasive foul language?”  No, she insisted.  It just said “pervasive language.”  I forgot about the exchange until I found myself  standing on a subway platform yesterday evening.  The Child was right:  pervasive-language1

Pervasive language?  You mean there’s talking in every scene?  Well, thank goodness for the warning!  I want my summer blockbusters full of chase scenes and explosions, thanks.  If I want dialogue, I’ll just stay home and watch Masterpiece Theatre.

A quick Internet search shows the MPAA has been using “pervasive language” to justify “R” ratings for at least 15 years. A 1994 movie titled Once Were Warriors earned an R  for “pervasive language and strong depiction of domestic abuse, including sexual violence and substance abuse.”  Still, just about every movie since Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer has featured pervasive language.  Perhaps it’s an appropriate warning for David Mamet or Woody Allen movies, but it’s hard to justify as a synonym for “offensive” or “foul throughout.”

A common teaching strategy is to have kids use context clues to puzzle out the meaning of unfamiliar words.  It helps if those words are used correctly.

Correcting Grammar is the Funnest Job

by Robert Pondiscio
April 28th, 2009

Do my ears deceive me?  Did Presidential Press Secretary Robert Gibbs actually say on national television – on Meet the Press, no less – “this is the funnest, most rewarding job that I’ve ever had and it may well be the funnest and most rewarding job that I ever have.”

Funnest?  The man who speaks for the President, who speaks for the United States of America, said “funnest?”  Twice??

If Mr. Gibbs and I go out to breakfast, we might have fun.  We also might have pancakes.  Fun and pancakes are both nouns.  If our breakfast cannot be the pancakiest meal we ever had, then how could it be the funnest?

Some will argue that “fun” has gained traction as an adjective, as in “That was a fun breakfast.”  But if you want to be a stickler about it (and having gone this far down the path, why not go the rest of the way?), “fun” used to describe the breakfast is not an adjective, but an attributive noun.  Here’s a great explanation from the blog Grammar Girl:

In the phrase “sugar cookie,” “sugar” is a noun, but it’s being used in an attributive way to describe the cookie. Attributive nouns do exactly the same thing as adjectives. You could say, “I ate a sugar cookie” or “I ate a yummy cookie.” The sentences are constructed the same way, but “sugar” is an attributive noun and “yummy” is an adjective.

No adjective?  Then no comparative (funner) and no superlative (funnest).

Your job may be the most fun you’ve ever had, Mr. Gibbs, but it’s not the funnest.

Us Are Not Amused

by Robert Pondiscio
October 20th, 2008

As a Mets fan, I don’t need a lot of encouragement to root against the Phillies in this week’s World Series.  But if I did, the ravings of “Mike from Delaware” might do the trick.  On a sports radio call-in show last week, the overheated Phillies fan coined an unfortunate and ungrammatical catchphrase that has quickly caught fire.  “Boston did it. The White Sox did it. Why can’t us? Why can’t us?”

Already, there’s a brisk business in “Why Can’t Us?” t-shirts, with the proceeds going to charity (May I humbly suggest Literacy Volunteers?)  Us send our sympathies to Philadelphia teachers who will have to abide this for the next week or so.

Grammar Makes a Comeback

by Robert Pondiscio
October 20th, 2008

The government has released a draft curriculum that unequivocally calls for the explicit teaching of the basic structures of the English language. Grammar will return to the classroom along with punctuation, spelling, pronunciation, and phonics, for all students from the first years of school.

Oops, I left out a key word.  The Australian government.  The draft curriculum also retains the teaching of critical literacy, ”a model analysing gender, race and class in literature to expose inherent prejudices and agendas,” The Australian reports.  The critical literacy component had been hotly debated.

The draft addresses the debates, saying the “explicit teaching of decoding, spelling and other aspects of the basic codes of written English will be an important and routine aspect” of the curriculum. The draft says critical literacy is the analysis of texts in terms of “their potential philosophical, political or ideological assumptions and content”.

The principal author of the curriculum notes that critical literacy “should not occupy a big part of the curriculum, but it had a role in enabling students to protect themselves against propaganda and being manipulated.”