Why Can’t Americans Teach Their Children How to write? *

*Apologies to George Bernard Shaw and Henry Higgins)

I am supposed to be on vacation. Actually, I am happily evicted from my house for two weeks while the kiddies moved in. Their house is being remodeled, and the temporary housing wasn’t quite ready. They moved in and I got on a plane. Currently, I am couch surfing on Long Island. Yes, there is beach time involved. But that’s neither here not there. I’m outta Minnesota armed with my laptop because there’s still a whole bunch of work to get done.

However, I have also left lots of head space for trash reading. I am coming to the end of my dalliance with romance novels…repetitious tropes get boring after a while, and the sex is increasingly gratuitous or violent. Frankly, I prefer light hearted comic reads these days. Not interested in mafia/gang “romance.” I really want the laughs. I want snappy dialogue and characters who don’t take themselves so seriously. There are some pretty witty writers out there…like Claire Kingsley, Aven Ellis, and Pippa Grant. These ladies do dialogue and this retired playwright loves it.

Other writers, however, not so much. Dark, overly dramatic tempests in teapots sorely in need of a Little, Brown Handbook make me grind my teeth. For pity’s sake, if you’re gonna pretend to be a novelist, know how to use I/me and we/us. Nails on a blackboard, people! This stuff is basic English grammar and usage whether you live in the US, the UK, South Africa, or Australia. Yeah, I know. I’ve already ranted on authors who don’t do homework, and whilst this is related, it ain’t quite the same thing. To be blunt, that book over there is on my desk at all times; I am not ashamed to admit I look stuff up. (Yes, it’s true; I use semi-colons.)

Let’s be honest: English is not an easy language to learn. Writing English is sometimes just weird. And sometimes we use phrases that are grammatically impure because it’s the character’s patter or the local dialect. Whatever. But if you’re writing about a guy who graduated from Stanford law or the Wharton School , you gotta figure he knows how to put an English sentence together, and it ain’t “Jim and me are going to the beach on Sunday.” No one says, “ME is going to the beach on Sunday” or “US are going to the beach on Sunday.” You say, “WE are going to the beach on Sunday.” Jim and me, is not necessarily interchangeable with Jim and I in written agreement. UNLESS… and isn’t there always an exception…you’re writing in dialect and then spoken English becomes the exception.

Confused yet? How about annoyed?

If you read the sentence aloud and it sounds wrong to your ears, guess what? It’s probably wrong. This is the moment you use the spell and grammar checkers. They’re not always right, nor are they as reliable as humans would like them to be, but if the checks flags something, check it yourself. If you’re going to throw your work out into cyberspace for the world to see and you can’t afford a professional editor, at the very least, get your friend who got an A in English to read it through looking for the BIG mistakes and typos.

Yeah, yeah; I’m grumbling again. But here’s the thing: if I’m spending assorted capital (time and money) on your book, I don’t want to feel like I’m participating in amateur hour. I am far more tolerant of spacing errors than grammar errors than I am of language errors and that’s fine with me. I know there is a difference between spoken language and written language, and I certainly am not the Grammar Police. I’m notorious for using words like lemme, gotta, gonna, and y’know, but in my defense, I am thoroughly aware these are spoken idiosyncrasies. And yeah, it’s questionable grammar…but that’s not what I’m talking about.

And speaking of THAN….things are different from, not different than….or worse, different then.

But there are situations where there actually is a right and a wrong, and why aren’t we teaching that in schools? Again, I’m not talking about dialect dialogue, or capturing the flavor of a place through jargon and idiosyncratic expression. If you’re writing, you simply must know the difference between ITS and IT’S, just as you must know the difference between who’s and whose, and who and whom. These are totally different words that, when used correctly, mean a variety of different things. Apostrophes are not optional decorations; they have a purpose, people!

I am seriously considering a one-woman campaign to restore the teaching of English grammar to the curricula of every school in this country. I’m gonna call it: CRITICAL WRITING THEORY.

Any minute now, I’m gonna run outside onto my little deck, wave my hands in the air, and shout, ‘HEY YOU KIDS! GET OFF MY GRASS!!!!!!


Okay….I am now officially back from vacay and if you want a blow-by-blow travelogue, you can visit my other blog, but here are some pictures just so you know I wasn’t kidding about blowing town.

Published by SJSchwaidelson@The Author Is In

New York born and bred, living in Minnesota, I am a widow, mother, grandmother, and writer. These are the things I do well.

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