Proper grammar opens door to self-expression

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    I’ve got a reputation for being a grammar stickler.Frequently, my friends will e-mail or hand-deliver their term papers to me, asking me to edit them. Most of the time, they ask me to pull no punches and to do my “worst.”

    And I give them that for which they ask. I let the red ink flow from my pen as blood from an open wound. I slash through words and sentences and, sometimes, entire paragraphs. I catch misspellings, parallel structure mistakes, misuses of predicate nominative and anything else that might impede the overall message of the piece.

    The entire slicing-and-dicing process takes, on average, 20 minutes per page. After I’m finished, I return the soggy paper back to its owner.

    “Was it really that bad?” the owner typically asks.

    “No, it’s good,” I respond, comfortingly. “Trust me when I say I’ve seen much worse.”

    Usually, that’s true. Sometimes it’s just lip service, like when you tell a girl that no, the dress doesn’t make her look fat.

    In my years of editing papers, I’ve noticed some trends. Most people will tell me that they either hate to write or that they aren’t very good. Many will say they never received much grammar training in high school. And some are so stuck in antiquated rules (don’t start a sentence with “and” or “but”; always put two spaces after periods; avoid, if at all possible, the dreaded “to be” verb and all of its evil cousins) that they are afraid the words they write might violate the cosmological constant and bring disorder to the universe.

    English Professor Richard Enos is on the reading and writing advisory committee for the College Board – the folks who gave us the SAT. But the test has changed since most of us took it: There is now a writing section.

    Enos said he wants students to understand how to use language mechanics, which he calls “absolutely essential,” when making written arguments. He said one of the goals of the new SAT is to emphasize the importance of writing.

    “One of the things that we tried to do was to really prepare middle school and high school students to be … successful in college by re-evaluating what was taught at that level,” Enos said. “The important thing is that students should move at that level from understanding grammar to understanding rhetoric.”

    Enos said TCU’s core curricula, both old and new, are designed with writing emphasis classes during all years of study. He said the idea is to “make sure that those important skills are all established early, early on, because they’re used all throughout and then, of course, when students graduate.”

    I fully support the efforts of Enos and the College Board to bring proper literacy to America’s youth, but I have some reservations. While I believe the new SAT and, locally, TCU’s writing emphasis classes will encourage better writing education, the true problem is a lack of passion. If every English teacher in the nation had the same attitude about writing as Enos and his colleagues, students would catch on as well. But as it stands, writing is viewed by our culture as boring and proper grammar as “uncool.”

    Teachers must develop passion for words, and they must dispose of pointless rules that have nothing to do with proper style. They must show students that grammar isn’t a way of limiting creativity but a gateway to free expression of thought and idea. If they don’t, students will continue to do the bare minimum to pass exams, classes and even the SAT.

    English is the first language of almost 5 percent of the world’s population, according to the CIA World Factbook, making it the third most frequently spoken first language. Beyond that, English is the dominant language of commerce, the media and politics. It is possibly more important than science, math, social studies and, believe it or not, athletics, for without language, the world would cease to function.

    It’s time we started taking pride in our language, and we should encourage that idea in our schools. Writing and grammar classes should be separate and required entities in high schools. Universities should expect an advanced ability in grammar before students are even considered for acceptance.

    The efforts of the College Board and TCU are good, but we need to take it further. So often, I think, students are crying out for ways to express themselves. By giving them tools, structure and passion, we could gain a whole new insight into our society.

    Brian Wooddell is a senior news-editorial journalism major from The Woodlands.