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DOES GRAMMAR MATTER ANY MORE?

BLOG #36, SERIES 4
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
DOES GRAMMAR MATTER ANY MORE?
September 4, 2013

What triggered this blog is Mark Goldblatt’s column, “Welcome Back, My Ungrammatical Students” in the September 3 Wall Street Journal. Mr. Goldblatt teaches English at State University of New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology. Set off in bold type is this jolting line: Unlike your friends, who will excuse your errors, your college professor may or may not like you.

Goldblatt, in his very first line, leaps into the heart of the matter: “The fall is mere weeks away, another college semester either under way or soon to be. If you’re one of thousands of freshmen nationwide, you’ve just discovered you’ve been placed in a remedial English class.

“‘How can this be?’ you’re asking yourself. ‘I got straight A’s in high school! I love writing stories and poems! I’m good in English!’”

Needless to say, Goldblatt postulates that it does matter whether or not a student uses correct English.

But I must confess I am a tad grateful I’m now a full-time writer rather than being an English
teacher barraged by poorly written essays that have to be daily evaluated and responded to. But I put in my time–34 years worth. However, no English teacher is ever permitted to escape his/her calling. Just ask any English teacher this question: “What’s it like when your introduction to a group of people includes this line, —is an English teacher.” What do you get? How right you are: dead silence. The ultimate example of clamming up. And it’s even worse if you happen to be an “English Professor.” To be an English teacher is perceived to be at least human; but to be an English Professor is perceived to be someone possessing grammatical infallibility. Whatever you do, don’t even talk to such a sage–you’re sure to get zapped!

But there are other downsides to being an English Professor, chief of which is the sadistic delight people–especially one’s former students–take in catching grammatical mistakes you may occasionally make. Case in point, my last week’s blog. By the time I got to the last line, I was too tired to re-check the exact meaning of a word I’d used before. Sure enough, here came a zinger from my dear friend and fellow writer, Elsi Dodge, chortling with glee that she’d caught me confusing “enervating” with “energizing.” What could I do but grovel and promise to mend my ways?

THE LONG, LONG GRAMMATICAL FUSE

Goldblatt, in referencing “grammar,” does so in these words: “to refer to the overall mechanics of your writing, including punctuation, syntax and usage.” And he negatively singles out those who don’t know how to put sentences together in ways that clarify, rather than cloud, what they’re trying to say.

Permit me to approach this issue pragmatically. The inability to write or speak correctly is not likely to hurt you too much among your peers and friends. Not in the short-term, that is. And especially not if you are charismatic, cover-girl-beautiful, or a candidate for sexiest man alive hunkhood. If you’re perceived to be one of these “golden ones who seemingly can do no wrong, you’ll suffer little more than winces from such disasters as “me and Joanie were like, wild about like see’n Tony.” But, in life, there are such things as fuses. When one’s proverbial “fifteen minutes of fame” are over, and the long descent takes place; when you are no longer drop-dead beautiful or headturningly handsome, what then? You may have been hired because your looks and contours were impossible to ignore, but inevitably there will come a day when your looks can no longer make up for your embarrassing mistakes in writing and speaking. When one more mangled syntax, misspelled word, or misplaced punctuation mark costs the firm one of its most valued clients—and out you go.

The problem is this: there is no one-day-seminar that can possibly fix such deficiencies. It is anything but an easy fix. Even if you memorize Strunk and White’s timeless masterpiece, Elements of Style, you’d only be part way there. Only by reading widely, reading selectively, and avoiding slangy, slovenly, poorly structured prose whenever possible, can you begin to improve the quality and enhance the power of your writing and speaking.

Which is a good time to reference another Goldblatt zinger: “While there definitely is such a thing as good writing, there’s no such thing as good grammar.” I agree 100%. One does not become a good writer by simply mastering grammar. Untold thousands of potentially significant writers have lost their love of writing because teachers sold them a bill of goods: that, unless they mastered grammar first, they’d never become good writers. Which is only partly true. They are on far safer ground if they are encouraged to write, write, write, even with occasional grammatical mistakes, and deal with one problem area at a time, not all of them at once. As problem areas–one at a time–are called to their attention by wise and empathetic mentors, who value substance over grammatical correctness, and, most important of all, consider the individual’s God-given one-of-a-kind voice sacrosanct, and not to be tinkered with, they can, over time, become “great” writers. Here I must qualify “great,” for I often say and write, “There are no great writers–there are only great stories.” By this I mean that no writer ever “arrives,” but rather we continue, as long as we live and breathe, to be works in progress. If we take too much time off–at any age—inevitably we lose our edge and become irrelevant and not worth reading any more.

So in conclusion, I invite each reader of this blog, to take grammar seriously. By so doing, you will avoid devaluing the substance of what you have to say. Recognize that effective communication is the key to success in almost every area of endeavor one may think of. Believe me, today’s world is almost desperate in its searches for men and women who are capable of writing coherent, persuasive, and interesting sentences and paragraphs.

What none of us want is a long-fuse, a ticking time-bomb, that is guaranteed to explode down the line. And let’s face it, if you are someone who is afraid to open your mouth or write an opinion on a piece of paper, then you do a grave disservice to the God who created you to do less than your best in correcting the problem–in becoming all you can be.

If this describes your condition, make today the first day of the rest of your life; if you are one who is already there, why not mentor someone who is not?

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DOES GRAMMAR MATTER ANY MORE?

BLOG #36, SERIES 4
WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
DOES GRAMMAR MATTER ANY MORE?
September 4, 2013

What triggered this blog is Mark Goldblatt’s column, “Welcome Back, My Ungrammatical Students” in the September 3 Wall Street Journal. Mr. Goldblatt teaches English at State University of New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology. Set off in bold type is this jolting line: Unlike your friends, who will excuse your errors, your college professor may or may not like you.

Goldblatt, in his very first line, leaps into the heart of the matter: “The fall is mere weeks away, another college semester either under way or soon to be. If you’re one of thousands of freshmen nationwide, you’ve just discovered you’ve been placed in a remedial English class.

“‘How can this be?’ you’re asking yourself. ‘I got straight A’s in high school! I love writing stories and poems! I’m good in English!’”

Needless to say, Goldblatt postulates that it does matter whether or not a student uses correct English.

But I must confess I am a tad grateful I’m now a full-time writer rather than being an English
teacher barraged by poorly written essays that have to be daily evaluated and responded to. But I put in my time–34 years worth. However, no English teacher is ever permitted to escape his/her calling. Just ask any English teacher this question: “What’s it like when your introduction to a group of people includes this line, —is an English teacher.” What do you get? How right you are: dead silence. The ultimate example of clamming up. And it’s even worse if you happen to be an “English Professor.” To be an English teacher is perceived to be at least human; but to be an English Professor is perceived to be someone possessing grammatical infallibility. Whatever you do, don’t even talk to such a sage–you’re sure to get zapped!

But there are other downsides to being an English Professor, chief of which is the sadistic delight people–especially one’s former students–take in catching grammatical mistakes you may occasionally make. Case in point, my last week’s blog. By the time I got to the last line, I was too tired to re-check the exact meaning of a word I’d used before. Sure enough, here came a zinger from my dear friend and fellow writer, Elsi Dodge, chortling with glee that she’d caught me confusing “enervating” with “energizing.” What could I do but grovel and promise to mend my ways?

THE LONG, LONG GRAMMATICAL FUSE

Goldblatt, in referencing “grammar,” does so in these words: “to refer to the overall mechanics of your writing, including punctuation, syntax and usage.” And he negatively singles out those who don’t know how to put sentences together in ways that clarify, rather than cloud, what they’re trying to say.

Permit me to approach this issue pragmatically. The inability to write or speak correctly is not likely to hurt you too much among your peers and friends. Not in the short-term, that is. And especially not if you are charismatic, cover-girl-beautiful, or a candidate for sexiest man alive hunkhood. If you’re perceived to be one of these “golden ones who seemingly can do no wrong, you’ll suffer little more than winces from such disasters as “me and Joanie were like, wild about like see’n Tony.” But, in life, there are such things as fuses. When one’s proverbial “fifteen minutes of fame” are over, and the long descent takes place; when you are no longer drop-dead beautiful or headturningly handsome, what then? You may have been hired because your looks and contours were impossible to ignore, but inevitably there will come a day when your looks can no longer make up for your embarrassing mistakes in writing and speaking. When one more mangled syntax, misspelled word, or misplaced punctuation mark costs the firm one of its most valued clients—and out you go.

The problem is this: there is no one-day-seminar that can possibly fix such deficiencies. It is anything but an easy fix. Even if you memorize Strunk and White’s timeless masterpiece, Elements of Style, you’d only be part way there. Only by reading widely, reading selectively, and avoiding slangy, slovenly, poorly structured prose whenever possible, can you begin to improve the quality and enhance the power of your writing and speaking.

Which is a good time to reference another Goldblatt zinger: “While there definitely is such a thing as good writing, there’s no such thing as good grammar.” I agree 100%. One does not become a good writer by simply mastering grammar. Untold thousands of potentially significant writers have lost their love of writing because teachers sold them a bill of goods: that, unless they mastered grammar first, they’d never become good writers. Which is only partly true. They are on far safer ground if they are encouraged to write, write, write, even with occasional grammatical mistakes, and deal with one problem area at a time, not all of them at once. As problem areas–one at a time–are called to their attention by wise and empathetic mentors, who value substance over grammatical correctness, and, most important of all, consider the individual’s God-given one-of-a-kind voice sacrosanct, and not to be tinkered with, they can, over time, become “great” writers. Here I must qualify “great,” for I often say and write, “There are no great writers–there are only great stories.” By this I mean that no writer ever “arrives,” but rather we continue, as long as we live and breathe, to be works in progress. If we take too much time off–at any age—inevitably we lose our edge and become irrelevant and not worth reading any more.

So in conclusion, I invite each reader of this blog, to take grammar seriously. By so doing, you will avoid devaluing the substance of what you have to say. Recognize that effective communication is the key to success in almost every area of endeavor one may think of. Believe me, today’s world is almost desperate in its searches for men and women who are capable of writing coherent, persuasive, and interesting sentences and paragraphs.

What none of us want is a long-fuse, a ticking time-bomb, that is guaranteed to explode down the line. And let’s face it, if you are someone who is afraid to open your mouth or write an opinion on a piece of paper, then you do a grave disservice to the God who created you to do less than your best in correcting the problem–in becoming all you can be.

If this describes your condition, make today the first day of the rest of your life; if you are one who is already there, why not mentor someone who is not?

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TREASURES OF THE PAST #4

BLOG #11, SERIES 3

WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE

TREASURES OF THE PAST #4

March 13, 2013

In last week’s blog, In Praise of Old Magazines, I discussed my ongoing love affair with old magazines, and what a treasure each represented to readers of the time who were privileged to read the timeless wisdom represented by the printed stories, poems, and articles.

In recent weeks and months, I’ve been perusing the pages of close to a thousand magazines of The Youth’s Companion (time period: 1870s to late 1920s), when that venerable century-old magazine finally gave up—not coincidentally, synonymous with the cataclysmic Wall Street crash of 1929.

In its pages there are so many gripping stories and memorable poems featured that I, to my later chagrin, passed over multitudinous shorts which I inwardly classified as mere “filler” (something trivial to fill up the allocated pages). Indeed, I was two-thirds through this monumental task before a certain title of a short so piqued my interest that I took the time to read it—and was instantaneously hooked. Perhaps it was but a fluke. Just to make certain, I read another—and another—and another. To my utter dismay, I concluded that I’d now have to go back to the beginning and complete my tabulating inventory!

What I discovered is that the editors early on discovered that much of the timeless wisdom submitted by contemporary authors was packaged in the shorts, any one of which might well be worth a month of reading (in terms of impact of even one of these gems upon the lives of the magazine’s readers).

I also discovered that most of these shorts are every bit as timeless (in terms of the values articulated) today as they were then.

Just to give you a feel for them, here is one. Do let me know if you’d like me to mine these shorts further for our blog readers (there is no author; almost none of these shorts referenced the author—such a pity!).

THE DREAM

The girl sprang to her feet and walked up and down the dean’s office; her eyes were red, and her thin face was drawn as if with pain. “I suppose you think I’m selfish,” she cried. “But I haven’t slept a night since the telegram came. I’ve read it over and over till I’m almost wild. I can’t see how it is right to expect me to leave college and give up all my life plans to take care of Mother. I could go to her during vacations. It isn’t as if we hadn’t money enough to make her comfortable; she could have almost anything in the world. And she may live for several years; the doctor said so.”

“Twenty years ago,” the dean said slowly, “another girl came to me with a problem like yours. She was studying chemistry. She told me that there wasn’t anything in the world she liked better, and that, if anyone offered her sunsets and music and starlight and beauty, she would want them only to analyze in the laboratory. In her junior year her mother died and left one little girl and three boys between the ages of twelve and nineteen.

“I’ve seen great struggles, but I’ve never seen a bigger one than that girl went through. When she said good-by she looked as if she had had a year’s sickness. ‘I’m going home,’ she said, ‘but I’ll never give up my dream!’

“I told her that there was as much chemistry about her home as there was anywhere else in the world, and I’ve never forgotten the startled look that came into her eyes. She stood quite still and just looked

“She was at home for nine years, till the girl started at college. Then she herself returned and took up the work where she had left off. Of course she was years older than most of her fellow students; and she had lost much of the technique of her work. But she had gained other things: judgment, power of quick decision, all-round knowledge and human sympathy. Moreover, through the years she had read much and had followed her beloved study into unusual fields. She had studied the chemistry of the Bible and of literature; she knew the history of chemistry and the lives of the great chemists. In short, she was well on the way to becoming a well-rounded chemical scholar, not a mere laboratory worker. Another thing, in the years at home she had so fired her brothers with her enthusiasm that today all three of them are men of science. Years afterwards she said, ‘My disappointment was the best thing that ever came to me. If I had had my own way, I should be nothing but a chemist now. Those years taught me to put life first and chemistry second.’

“That is why we could not afford to let her go when she finished her course. For twelve years now her influence has been inspiring hundreds of lives inside and +outside the laboratory.”

“You don’t mean—Miss Torrance?” the girl cried.

“I mean Miss Torrance.”

The girl stood quite still, and the dean, watching, saw the look she had been waiting for come into the tired eyes.

—The Youth’s Companion (March 23, 1922)

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Grace Richmond's Foursquare

    BLOG #1, SERIES 4
    WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
    DR. JOE’S BOOK OF THE MONTH CLUB #16
    GRACE RICHMOND’S FOURSQUARE
    January 2, 2013

It is a new year.  The beauty of new years is that they each offer the opportunity to write on a blank slate, to make a brand new start.  2012 is gone – never to return.  2013 is here, young and vibrant, begging to be used.

It is the perfect blog to anchor our reading for the new year as well.  But before I discuss our sixteenth book, since a number of blog-readers may not have been with us back in the fall of 2011 when Dr. Joe’s Book of the Month Club began, I’m pausing a moment to explain what makes this series different from all others.  Primarily, the fact that I personally choose each selection — not a committee.  From a lifetime of voracious reading, 34 years in the classroom, and studying books en route to a bachelors in history, a masters in English, and a doctorate in English (History of Ideas concentration), certain authors and certain books have risen to the surface.  Books that several generations of students have weighed in on.

I am not a traditional academic, fixated only on classics blessed by academics, but rather a professor who chooses the best and most meaningful books from academic classics, popular culture, and Christian publishing.  Books that have the potential to change lives, to ennoble, to entertain, to inspire.  To put it more succinctly, I draw from books I have loved personally.

A number of our “club” members are former students of mine who miss our book discussions and have signed on for more.  What a joy it is for me to welcome them back into my life!  The rest of you, well you’re now my students too.  A surprisingly large number of people, over the last 21 years, have sighingly said, “If only I could have been one of your students!”  Well, by joining our book club, you become my students.

Created by DPE, Copyright IRIS 2009

Though this book was written a little over 90 years ago, never has it been more timely or more needed than it is today.  Today when, all too often, educators jeer at Christianity and Judeo-Christian values in their classrooms, advocating in their place a gospel of secularism divorced from God, and leaving in their wake a moral twilight.

How long has it been since you read a novel that elevated those old-time values Americans used to live by, and expected to see incorporated into the educational institutions of the land?

This is just such a book.  It moved me many years ago, and moves me still.  Expect to see questions such as these incorporated into the fabric of this timeless romance.

•    Are writing and literature that erode rather than enhance and create Judeo-Christian values worth reading and internalizing?
•    Is extensive exposure to the seamy side of life conducive to purity?
•    Do we still need Christian-based colleges and universities today?
•    Is the product (graduates) of Christian colleges different from that of secular institutions that steer away from spiritually based ethics?
•    Are our youth strong enough to resist mentors who themselves live lives at variance from the values once prized by early Americans?
•    How do mentorees avoid becoming clones?
•    What is the impact of positive versus negative examples?
•    Is it easy–or is it difficult–to cripple or destroy the human spirit?
•    What is this thing called “creativity”?
•    How powerful is music?
•    What does it mean to be a real leader?  Ought a leader to be passionate?
•    What is the role of drama in our lives?
•    Is big better than small?
•    How powerful are books?
•    What do you consider most significant about this book?
•    Is it dated?  If so, how?
•    Does the book change you?  How?

GRACE LOUISE SMITH RICHMOND
(1866 – 1959)

Our readers will remember an earlier book selection by Richmond, her wondrous romance, THE TWENTY-FOURTH OF JUNE (SEE May 23, 2012 blog).

Grace Smith was born on March 3, 1866, in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, to a minister father, the Rev. Dr. Charles E. Smith and mother, Catherine “Kitty” Kimball Smith. Grace was a direct descendant ot the state’s founder, Roger Williams.  An only child, Grace grew up the focal center of her parents’ manse.  In 1885, after having pastored Baptist churches in Mt. Auburn, Ohio; New Haven, Connecticut; and Syracuse, New York, Dr. Smith was called to Fredonia, New York; and there he would remain for the rest of his life.  On Oct. 29, 1887, Grace married the personable young family doctor, Dr. Nelson G. Richmond, who purchased a home next door to the manse.  So after marriage, Grace merely moved next door.  And it was here in Fredonia that the bride would write her many stories, essays, and novels.

The home.  It all starts there, the action happens there, and it all ends there.  Because of this, Grace Richmond is known as “The Novelist of the Home.”  Of the thousands of writers who have written about the home, only Richmond earned that title.  Only in her fictional world is the home the all-in-all, the core, the bedrock.

Among her other beloved books are novels such as The Indifference of Juliet, The Second Violin, A Court of Inquiry, Red Pepper Burns, Strawberry Acres, The Brown Study, Red Pepper’s Patients, Red and Black, Foursquare, Cherry Square, Lights Up, At the South Gate, The Listening Post, High Fences, and several Christmas novelettes.  She was among the most prolific short story writers in America.  Most of her novels were serialized as well.  For 40 years, she was never out of print.  Of the dominant family authors of the first half of the twentieth century, only Zane Grey, Gene Stratton Porter, and Harold Bell Wright were better known than she; and her name ranked up there with Frances Hodgson Burnett, Kate Douglas Wiggin, Lucy Maud Montgomery, Pearl S. Buck, Bess Streeter Aldrich, and Temple Bailey.  It was illustrious company indeed.  At the height of her popularity she was paid upward of $30,000 for magazine serializations (a princely sum back then!).  Doubleday would sell more than 2,500,000 copies of her books.

You should be able to pick up a First Edition or reprint of the book on the web.

Foursquare, by Grace S. Richmond (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1922).  First Edition features special chapter illustrations.

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LITTLE BOY BLUE REVISITED

We’ve had a lot of responses to our series of blogs detailing the grim picture for boys and men in America today. Now columnist, educator, and former First Lady of Colorado Dottie Lamm has picked up the torch in “Our Boys Are Falling Behind in Education” (Denver Post, April 18, 2010).

She begins with this preamble:

“What’s the next battle for an aging feminist?

Boys.

Granted, the battle for women’s rights and equality has not been completely won, but the new reality is that in the future, it will be males who are most endangered.”

She concurs with the findings in one of my earlier blogs: That since by 2017 (only seven years from now) the ratio of female to male graduates will be 1 ½ to 1, we’re already in the midst of a terrible crisis, and notes that though women have lobbied for generations for their rights and talents to be recognized, they most certainly weren’t lobbying for a complete role reversal, where they’re predicted to “reign supreme in all fields but the sciences.”

And women, she feels, have not even begun to internalize the fallout from such a seismic shift. So she poses this rhetorical question: “How many college-educated women today would want to marry a man with such low educational achievement skills or ambition that he would be permanently relegated to the role of full-time ‘homemaker’—not by choice, but by default?”

Then Lamm turns to causes, and refers to issues I’ve spent most of my adult lifetime studying. Both of us are convinced that we’re now paying the price for forcing our kids into reading and verbal exercises at an ever earlier age. We used to wait until they were seven or eight, but for several generations now we’ve been forcing them into early-learning kindergartens before they—especially boys—are ready for it. Lamm points out that, generally speaking, “the verbal parts of boys’ brains do not develop to capacity until fourth or fifth grade.” Furthermore, brain-scans reveal that the language area of 3 ½-year-old girls mirrors that of 5-year-old boys.”

We both agree: What results from immersing boys into verbal instruction at such an early age is that we set them up for almost certain failure. When girls their own age can run circles around them in classwork, the wounds to boys’ sense of self-worth can be so deep and long-lasting that they just plain give up, convicted that they’re just plain dumb; that nothing they can possibly do will be enough to enable them to reach performance parity with girls. Quite simply, it’s the Dunce Syndrome all over again: Tell a child enough times that he’s dumb, and it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Studies have also shown that small children’s eyes find it difficult to focus on print. On the other hand, boys are wired for action from birth on. That’s why the best thing we can do for them is let them roam the great out-of-doors free of regimentation during the first seven or eight years of their lives. Instead of Gameboys and videos, they ought to be outside climbing trees, wading in creeks, playing in a sandpile. Our own son Greg, just turned seven, was not quite ready for first grade work, so we pulled him out until he was almost eight—by that time he was so ready he raced through two grades in one year.

Studies have shown that children who are force-fed too soon (many are pushed into reading as early as three or four so that they’ll get a head-start over the others) invariably are passed later on by those who were permitted to begin schooling at a later age. Furthermore, those who start too young get burned out earlier than those who wait.

Lamm notes that “boys are far more likely to be held back a grade in fourth grade and then again in ninth grade, an action that promotes a suspension rate for boys that is twice as high as that of girls. This in turn leads to a male dropout rate of 32 percent compared to 25 percent for females.”

And let’s face it, girls remain considerably more mature than boys through college and later. I had 34 years of classroom experience in which to compare the two genders. Believe me, it was no contest: the average coed was about three years ahead maturity-wise, far more ready to tackle serious issues such as marriage and long-term commitment than were the males. But males do eventually catch up—usually by the late twenties or early thirties.

Lamm feels it’s almost criminal that we as a society have failed to do a thing about a problem of this magnitude, pointing out that the U.S. Department of Education “has yet to launch a single probe into the gender gap.”

Lamm concludes with these revealing words: “If a man’s movement develops for boys, I’ll join it. And, as an aging feminist, I’ll still fight to take big chunks out of that glass ceiling for women. But as a grandmother of three young boys, I’m going to do my darndest to keep young boys from sinking into that academic mud floor.”