Millroy: A Complaint About the Teachers , One I Have Harboured for a Long, Long Time

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I, like probably most residents of this province, support the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation in opposing government changes to the education system, especially the one regarding a proposal to enlarge class sizes.

But I also have a complaint about the teachers themselves, one I have harboured for a long, long time.

Teachers have to do something to ensure that all graduates of the school system or even those who don’t make it all the way at least do so with a working understanding of the English language.

The teaching of proper grammar has taken a back seat for far too long.

I had been pondering about writing a column on this for about three years before I finally got around to doing so in 2015.

My hope was that if the Ministry of Education wasn’t going to provide teachers with a blueprint for getting proper English usage across to students, then teachers would band together to come up with one themselves.

Didn’t happen, so I am appealing again.

I just think there has to be a simple way to imbue students with the basics of the language.
I entered journalism with the Trail Times in B.C. with only high school behind me. When it came to language, I was ill-prepared for what I was to face.

However, as I explained in my column in 2015, I was fortunate to be taken in hand by a mentor who was a language purist.

Ironically, as I said in that column, she was a member of the group I was about to malign.
Ethel McIntosh, a proofreader at The Times, was a retired high school teacher. As my copy did not pass through an editor on the way to what was then the composing room, she not only had to correct the mistakes made by the printers but also the grammatical errors I made.

So she offered to give me grammar lessons and I gratefully accepted.

The first thing she had me do was learn about the base form, past tense and past participle of irregular verbs, such as lie, lay, lain; drink, drank, drunk; go, went, gone; come, came, come; bite, bit, bitten; write, wrote, written: bring, brought, brought.

The latter example provided a rather auspicious start to our lessons.

Mrs. Mac, as she was known throughout the paper, asked me for the past tense and past participle of bring.

Bring, brang, brung,” I replied, showing my ignorance of the language.
“We have some work to do,” she said in her quiet manner.

Mrs. Mac provided me with several pages of irregular verbs and instructed me to memorize them, explaining that she considered this as important to English as the memorizing of the times table was to mathematics.

She estimated about 50% of the errors in English usage came about because students were not forced to memorize the workings of irregular verbs, “have went” being one of the most-common misuses.

I memorized the list but I still couldn’t explain to you what makes an irregular verb. The technical aspects of taking apart a sentence are beyond me.

I recall way back in elementary school teachers breaking down sentences and not having a clue what they were all about. Bare predicate is about the only term I remember from that time.

I would have thought that it would be better now but listening to some of the things that are said on air by well-known announcers, I know it isn’t..

I actually heard a retired admiral who now works with CNN say this week, “me and my kids were . . . “

It should, of course, be “my kids and I were . . . “
In real life you hear people start sentences with “me and John, him and I, her and me.”

Shouldn’t there by a way to have young minds memorize that you cannot start a sentence with “me” or “him” at any time.

I have been a fan of The Big Bang Theory television show for years. Most of those in the show are supposed to be super intelligent physicists, yet the grammar in some of the lines the writers provide them doesn’t support this.

They are constantly given lines such as “he is smarter than me” when it should be “he is smarter than I (am)”.

As I said in my column in 2015, I am no grammar Nazi. I just think that unless the role calls for poor grammar, then proper grammar should be what is spoken.

And contrary to what some in the news business believe, that all quotes have to be exact, I always advocated correcting bad grammar. I have seen instances where the person being quoted was made to look foolish because of the mangled verbiage. I see that as being irresponsible on the part of the news organization involved.

I want to make this clear. I am not just criticizing English teachers with this piece; I am criticizing all teachers who work with the written and spoken word.

When grading tests all teachers could be a great help to students by pointing out errors in grammar and spelling. Within unions apparently you often hear, “that’s not my job.” I hope that is not be the case here.

I think everyone involved in the school system should do what they can to ensure the English remains as intended.

All teachers may think they are doing just that but my point here is that whatever they are doing is not working in enough cases.

My fear in all this is that if something is not done to protect the English language, such as finding ways to teach it so that it sticks, that what we are seeing now in so many instances will become the norm.

 

6 COMMENTS

  1. Doug…There isn’t a teacher I know that wouldn’t accept you to volunteer to come in and help teach classes on the proper use of grammar and english. Sadly, as it isn’t a part of the curriculum documents they must follow or course outline that is developed other than specific classes, it can not be enforced on the whole. Even teachers I know who would love to institute what you are saying feel overwhelmed teaching classes where they deal with highly academic, to learning disabled on individual education plans and behavioural issues at the same time. On top of lesson planning, marking, assessing, report cards, curriculum development, volunteering to run arts/sports/science after school programs etc. People seem to like to complain about how they feel teachers are over compensated for what they do, or how they don’t do enough and rarely recognize EVERYTHING they do plus the extras, such as paying out of pocket to decorate a class to have a suitable learning environment or buying supplies for students because their parents and the school doesn’t supply them. Further, teachers are often hand-cuffed from teaching lessons in time management, discipline and life lessons because they are told by the board not to set deadlines, only based marks on work handed in etc.

    In regards to your comments about the Admiral. Not all working class people have and english/grammar education you talk about. The fact that the Admiral talks like he does, even though it is no to your standard shows me he relates to his men and women under his command. In that simple way it shows that I am like you, I understand you and I will look out for you. I have found that always talking proper english that is grammatically correct makes some people feel uncomfortable. However, an educated person can recognize this and blend into there surroundings to still get their point across without coming across as looking down on those who don’t meet their standard.

    That being said, thank you for the wonderful and thoughtful articles that you research and put so much time and effort into helping to make this town a better place. I look forward to reading the article on your volunteer experiences on helping our floundering education system, teachers and students.

    • Also…sorry for my grammatically incorrect response. It is hard to proof read while composing on a mobile.

  2. I guess the importance of teaching or learning grammar has gone the way of the importance of learning basic arithmetic. I suspect that it started happening in Math when calculators came in to common use. And maybe the use of the calculator in earlier grades allowed the education Ministry to add more curriculum, which may have shortened the time that teachers were given to teach the basics.

    That is my theory on why students don’t know the basics in Math like they once did but I am not sure there is more content in the English curriculum. Maybe it is a general belief in the education system that the basics aren’t as important as they were made out to be in the 50s and 60s. And I thought that somewhere along the line teachers were not allowed to dock marks for spelling and grammar. As soon as that happens the incentive to get it right is gone.

    Unfortunately, students probably started losing the basics in Math and English in the seventies and it has gotten worse over the years. I suspect that many of the teachers responsible for teaching these basics were not taught those basics themselves. And so the problem worsens as more technology is created to make spelling and grammar easier and as fewer people are around who actually learned the basics.

    In any event, my guess is that the answer to this grammar problem is much more complicated than just telling teachers to teach basic grammar once again. And of course the internet has a huge part to play in all of this. The more tools that we have at our disposal to make life easier, the less we have to do on our own.

    On another note, there is one thing in the article that I am curious about. Someone taught me decades ago that you use “I” when the reference occurs before a verb and you use “me” when it occurs after the verb. If it involves something like “my brother and I” or “my brother and me”, remove the brother part of the statement and the correct usage will be very clear.

    For example, if you aren’t sure if “My brother and me chopped wood” is correct, remove brother and try out the sentence. It becomes “Me chopped wood” which is obviously wrong. Similarly, if you aren’t sure if “The teacher spoke to my brother and I” is correct, remove brother and try it. The sentence becomes “The teacher spoke to I” which is obviously incorrect.

    I suspect that the writers of The Big Bang Theory are trying to use that rule but have forgotten that there is a silent “am” at the end of “he is smarter than me (am)”. As soon as you add it, it becomes obvious that it should be “he is smarter than I”.

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