'Whoa' Is the State of English

If I am the only parent who still corrects his child's English, then perhaps my son is right: To him I am an oddity, a father making remarks about something that no longer seems to merit comment.

I think I got serious about this only recently, when I ran into one of my former students, fresh from two months in Europe. "How was it?" I asked, full of anticipation.

She nodded three or four times, searched the heavens for the right words, and then informed me, "It was, like, whoa."

And that was it. The glory of Greece and the grandeur of Rome summed up in a nonstatement. My student's "whoa" was exceeded only by my head-shaking woe.

As a biology teacher, perhaps I shouldn't be overly concerned with my students' English. After all, the traditional refuge of the science teacher is the hated multiple-choice exam, where students are asked to recognize, but not actually use, language. My English-teaching colleagues are, however, duty-bound to extract essays, compositions, and position papers from their charges. These products, I am told, are becoming increasingly awful. I still harbor the image of an English-teacher colleague who burst into my office one day in a sweat of panic. "Quick!" she commanded. "A dictionary!"

She tore through the book. "Just as I thought!" she exclaimed, pinning the entry with her finger. "It is spelled r-e-c-e-i-v-e."

Her point, whether she knew it or not, was that students make the same mistakes over and over again. As for their teachers, they must read hundreds and eventually thousands of errors, which in time become more familiar than the accepted forms, so that the instructors themselves become uncertain whether it's "recieve" or receive, "protien" or protein.

THE one thing that stories about the demise of English in America have in common is that they're all true. And students usually bear the brunt of the infamy, because there is a sense that they should know better. The truth is that they are being misled everywhere they look and listen.

Supermarket aisles point them to the "stationary," even though the pads and notebooks are not nailed down; people "could care less," even when they couldn't; and, more and more, friends and loved ones announce that they've just "ate" when, in fact, they've eaten.

Blame must be laid (and lie, not lay, it does) somewhere, and I am happy to place it squarely on the schools, which should be safe harbors for the standards of the English language. Instead, they don't teach grammar at all. Or syntax or vocabulary. In fact, the younger teachers themselves have little knowledge of these underpinnings of the language, because they also went without exposure to them.

Without grammatical rules of the road to fall back on, students are dependent upon parroting the language they see and hear around them. Further, it makes formal transmission of the English language extremely difficult, and the acquisition of foreign language impossible. Once a student is confronted with verbs and nouns, let alone the pluperfect tense, the inclination is to give up. Or, at best, to learn a pidginized version of a foreign tongue: "Yo Tarzan, tu Jane."

The schools having affirmed poor or sloppy speech habits through their lack of attention to them, I am obligated to do the dirty work of gently ushering my son onto the path of competent communication. But, as the Wicked Witch of the West said in one of her rhetorical musings, "These things must be handled delicately." (Alyosha's patience is limited when his dad behaves like a teacher.)

The other day, I was driving to a nearby town with my son. As we set out on our five-mile trip, he noticed a bird in eccentric flight and said, "It's flying so raggedly." Impressed with his description, I remarked, "Good adverb!"

He asked me what an adverb was. I explained that it's a word that tells you something about a verb. Which led to his asking me what a verb was. I explained that it's an action word, giving him an example: "Dad drives the truck. 'Drives' is the verb," I told him, "because it's the thing Dad is doing."

He became intrigued with the idea of action words. So we listed a few more: Fly, swim, dive, run. And then, having fallen prey to his own curiosity, he asked me if other words had names. This led to a discussion of nouns, adjectives, and articles. The upshot of all this is that within the span of a 10-minute drive, he had learned - from scratch - to recognize the major parts of speech in a sentence.

It was painless and fun, but it's not being taught in the schools. There seems to be a sense that as long as a student is making himself understood, all is well. Sort of like driving a junker that blows smoke and has a flat tire. If it gets you there, what's the problem?

Perhaps, then, language should be looked upon as a possession: keeping it clean and in repair shows concern and effort. It demonstrates attentiveness to detail and the accomplishment of a goal - clear, accurate, descriptive speech.

Just this morning my son and I were eating breakfast when I attempted to add milk to my tea. "Dad," he cautioned, "if I were you, I wouldn't do that. It's sour."

"Alyosha," I said, swelling with pride, "that's a grammatically perfect sentence. You used 'were' instead of 'was.' "

"I know, I know," he said with a degree of weary irritation. "It's the subjunctive mood."

I was, like, whoa.

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