I would certainly consider it correct
professional behavior to describe procedures for teaching and aiding
understandings of how communication with visual materials can express,
describe and give form and structure to the unique character, technology
and spirit of our experience in these late years of the 20th century.
Which Hunting in
The Underground Grammarian
M. B. Newton, Jr.
Editor, Pioneer America
IT IS, to be sure, a
debatable matter among contemporary grammarians, but, in view of the stalwart
stance of The Underground Grammarian in defence of good, clear,
correct writing, I can only wonder why that elegant (and we hope, mighty)
journal tolerates ambiguous use of which. The point that
I want to make is that every civilized device that can be
used to clarify writing ought to be carefully cultivated, which
is an opinion that the Grammarian surely endorses.
In the September, 1977, Grammarian,
which is an outstanding example of the printer's art, I find three
instances of softness on which-ism, to wit: "A course which
(that!) does not require the sustained mental discipline of expository
prose..." "Stay away from courses which (that!) require
oral reports..." "‘In the context of the Glassboro situation,'
a phrase which (that!) must remind..." These are the only
original lapses into which-craft in this number, which is encouraging.
But the Grammarian's criticism of that scribble by the musician
dealt directly with which clauses and failed to take note of the
which-switch that further compounded the awkwardness of the passage,
nor did the Grammarian note that "awkward pairing of which
clauses" is actually a pair of restrictive clauses, the second restricting
the first, and that both require the relative pronoun that.
Of course, the counterattack--if the Grammarian
disagrees with me--can be joined on the ground that Dr. Johnson, as quoted
in a footnote on page 2, was also soft on which-ism, as are, of
course, the King James Version and The Book of Common Prayer. Nevertheless,
the struggle, which has gone on for generations, ought not to be resolved
by an ad vericundiam, which is a venerable fallacy, but on the
basis of greater power for writers.
Homer has some figure or other proclaim
of the decadence at Odessius's homestead, "The Fish rots from the
head!" Because The Underground Grammarian has become, for
many at least, the head of a restoration movement the Grammarian
should help stamp out creeping which-ism. Let the antigrammarians
quail before our battle cry, which is: "I'd rather fight than which!"
M. B. Newton is not only an editor but also
Associate Professor of Geography at Louisiana State University. Although
clearly an intransigent grammarian of the old school, he has a certain
endearing trait. He wrote, of our decision to publish non-Glassborovian
authors: ". . . it will make the turkeys who surround you realize
how far the word has gotten and how much respect The Underground Grammarian
I had lunch with a colleague,
and we fell to talking shop. He said that there weren't really
any standards by which we might say that English is good or bad. I have
heard that often, of course, but never from anyone who did much writing.
So I asked, and, sure enough, he hadn't written anything since he left
graduate school, and he wasn't about to. Well, I asked, what about his
students? Did he make any judgments about their writing? No, he did not,
because he never saw any of their writing. He gave what he called "oral"
tests sometimes (be grateful--it could be even worse) and never assigned
papers, though his discipline is one in which expository writing is ordinarily
thought a useful indicator of a student's knowledge and understanding.
He confessed, furthermore, that his own "oral" competence was
meager but still not reason enough to justify preparing written lectures.
Like the lilies of the field, he toils not, neither does he spin; but,
unlike the fowls of the air, he does gather into barns--every other
Friday in fact.
Well, he founded me dumb, because, while
I don't share his grammatical agnosticism, I am aware that I don't know
what I think until I've found the way to say it. So I have tried hard
to write clearly on this subject so that I can see what I think
and judge it, an exciting venture, by the way, from which my sub-literate
colleague is excluded.
The least important measurement of English
comes from fussing about who and whom and split infinitives.
The "rules" (we all know this, don't we?) tell us what English
does, not what it must do. Aha! says my oral friend. See! The rules
don't tell me what I have to do! And he's right, they don't, unless
he'd like to speak conventional English. There's no law of nature that
forces us to drive cars to the right of the road, but many think
it "correct" to observe that convention.
There are many ways in which English can
be conventional. Consider: You are at the police station to identify a
culprit. "That's he," you gasp. Have you spoken correctly? No.
It will serve you bloody right when a sneering sergeant says, "Whom're
you trying to kid? That's a plain-clothes cop." "Correct"
English is correct conventionally and in context. Down at the police station
the correct form is "That's him!"
It is correct, furthermore, not because
the policemen don't know the difference but because they do know
the difference. They will know, if you say "That's he," that
you are being inappropriately formal, rudely calling attention to what
you mistakenly deem one of your many merits, and, possibly, insulting
them all by your presumption that they need you to set a good grammatical
Mutatis mutandis, we can say that
a failure of agreement from Maxine Colm in Laser or a misplaced
modifier in an official letter from Phillip Tumminia must be judged wrong
and insulting, unless, of course, those things are deliberate insults.
In that case they would be correct and insulting. Deliberate rudeness
is a valuable and effective way of sending messages, but inadvertent rudeness
is simply an outward sign of an inner ineptitude. Which is it, then, when
Kenneth Clay sends us a singular verb form to go with data? Does
he mean that he scorns our conventions, consciously or not, or is he simply
ignorant of the number of data? I would prefer the former, but
I suspect the latter. So do you.
Who asserts that there are no standards
had better prepare to swallow some camels. He must find no fault in the
following, a recent letter to all of us from John Schaub:
Please advise the Faculty Senate Office
Secretary, extension 5244, the names of Chairpersons of Dept./Office
Promotion and Tenure and Recontracting Committies as soon as possible.
He has to contend that "advise the
secretary the names" is all right, since to do otherwise is to assume
standards. That's not the end. He would equally have to accept, had Schaub
written it, "advise unto the secretary of the names" or perhaps
"make advisings toward secretary in regardment of names." And
if we should do with this passage what Sidney Smith suggests for flaccid
prose and cut out every other word, our standardless turkey would have
to defend the result, probably by muttering something about how English
keeps changing, you know.
Have I gone too far?
Are these examples so absurd that they vitiate the argument? (Are they
as absurd as the assertion that the President of the Faculty Senate at
Glassboro State College can't spell committees, but that it doesn't
matter, since English spelling has changed in the past and will change
in the future?) From preposterous premises preposterous conclusions must
flow. No standards means no standards; it does not mean some
standards that suddenly appear, like warning lights on the dashboard,
only when total breakdown is imminent.*
We teachers claim that teaching is a "profession,"
but we tolerate--and some of us will defend--an amateurish sloppiness in
the use of language, the basic tool of teaching. Why can't we get things
right? Why must Board Briefs confuse up-to-date with up
to date? Why must an AFT circular say insure when ensure
is meant? If your physician said that your pantella was strained and decided
to put it into attraction, wouldn't you like to sneak a peek at that diploma
while he's figuring out which end of the stethoscope gets stuck and where?
Would you have a suggestion?
No prudent teacher would put up with a dentist,
or even a plumber, who handles his tools as awkwardly as many teachers
handle their language. If you want to call yourself a "professional,"
be sure that you are master of all relevant techniques. In the technique
of language, merely to avoid all the "mistakes" of convention
and context is not enough, although even that would be refreshing around
here. The professional in any calling handles his instruments easily and
accurately, even gracefully. So here is another standard that the world
(i.e., the taxpayer) will measure us by without caring at all that
English changes: A coherent passage of error-free prose is the least
we can require of those who take our money as professionals in teaching.
In fact, at these prices, we can demand more than elementary conventional
correctness. We can demand skill.
Qui s'excuse, s'accuse, but
he'll probably be little troubled by me. People who say there's no way
to judge English need to believe that. He's not reading this anyway.
He's just not into print, you know.
Just as soon as I can walk again, I'm going
to invite him to another lunch so I can send him to this great chiropractor
Yours in English,
R. Mitchell, A.C.M.
MELTING POT DEPARTMENT
reports that Komiko Murashima will represent the AFT as a member of the
Professional Ethnics Committee.
FORGOTTEN, BUT NOT GONE
Alan B. Donovan, long unheard from,
writes us all as follows;
The intention of this guidebook is to
offer for your consideration and, hopefully, use a comprehensive and
detailed presentation . . .
As such, many thanks are due Mary Anne,
who with her diligence and obvious command of the art of teaching and
encouraging good writing has authored this rather unique document.
We just love, hopefully, the way he authors,
don't you? As such, it may be less than rather unique, but it's
unique enough for us.
THE PASSIVE STRIKES AGAIN
"Good programs that enhance our image
in the community and state are focused upon in this section of the newsletter."
THE UNDERGROUND GRAMMARIAN has become a member of the Educational Press
Association of America. We subscribe without reservation to their Code
of Ethics and can still assure our readers that there will be no changes
in our policies or practices.
R. Mitchell of our staff has been promoted to the post of Assistant Circulation
Manager. Send letters, mss., examples, whatever, to his attention at Post
Office Box 203, Glassboro, New Jersey 08028.
* Suppose I had written "eminent." Those
who say there are no standards would suddenly decide that there is at
least one standard after all, and Glassboro would be treated to a prodigy-turkeys
crowing. If I had written "immanent", could they be expected to know that
that too was crow-worthy? How many would pronounce such errors unimportant,
because English keeps changing, you know? How many, this very moment,
are wondering how they can manage to borrow dictionaries without giving
their names? back