National Grammar Day

March 4 is …. National Grammar Day! Sadly, ESL teachers don’t all get a day off to celebrate (or, maybe, we should teach especially well on that day?). This is a publicity stunt by the “Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar,” one of many self-declared and self-aggrandizing stewards of the English language. Their website isn’t actually terrible (although you get bonus points for spotting some of their inconsistent punctuation on the home page), but linguists find the idea that English grammar needs promotion or protection laughable. After all, the language has survived — flourished, in fact — without (despite of?) efforts to save it.

And while I’m thinking about it … why National Grammar Day? Does the U.S. need to serve as the world’s linguistic police? Or does SPOGG only promote good American English grammar? Do they fear our friends from the north are trying re-introduce the widespread use of the letter “u”? Or are they afraid of British ex-pats complaining, “It’s ‘Have you eaten yet?’ not ‘Did you eat yet?’!”

So, I unilaterally declare every day to be henceforth International Grammar Day, dedicated to using the resources of language to boldly communicate meanings in whatever ways work!

Language and Climate Change

Climate change or global warming: which sounds scarier? I heard an interesting interview this evening on NPR with Berkeley Linguistics Prof George Lakoff in which he describes the way that language “frames” the way we understand science. His criticism of scientists for not considering the way their words will be interpreted by the general public is well made.

(There’s an amusing typo on the NPR page right now: Lakoff is described as a “professor of linguists” — presumably, then, he studies the curious behavior of his fellow linguists.)

This is one more reason that all scientists should take a good scientific writing course, and that all university writing programs should get serious about writing in the sciences, not just the humanities. And since more and more science is being written in English by non-native speakers, we ESL specialists need to be part of that conversation.

Any thoughts? Do share! Click leave a comment at the top of this post.

A professional plagiarism problem

One of my arguments for the importance of understanding plagiarism is that it is not just an academic obsession: in the “real” world, real writers can face scandal and even legal action if accused of plagiarism. Traci Gardner has this detailed summary of the latest such case over on NCTE’s InBox blog. I need to brush up my German and read the novel at the center of the controversy, Helen Hegemann’s Axolotl Roadkill. (If I’ve translated the blurb on correctly, it’s a semi-autobiographical novel about excessive drugs, partying, and speech in Berlin. Excessive speech? Now I’m curious what Sprachexzesse really means …)

This reminds me of the most famous recent case in academia, in which Steven Ambrose, a well-known historian, was accused of plagiarizing from a book by Thomas Childers, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania (a Penn undergraduate wrote a nice article about this for the Penn’s alumni magazine). The situation here was more complex: the issue was whether Ambrose gave adequate credit to Childers — in the German novel, there are (apparently) entire pages lifted from other sources.

Regardless of the merits of the accusations and defenses in either case, you don’t want articles and blogs about plagiarism to be the first hits in a google search for your name! Another reason to teach and learn plagiarism well as early and often throughout every stage of higher education.

You can watch my video introduction to plagiarism and paraphrasing for ESL (mostly graduate) students here.

On Brits in America

With thanks to the Living the Scientific Life blog, here’s comedian Ricky Gervais with his Top Ten list of “Stupid Things Americans Say to Brits.”

It’s all in good fun! He missed my pet peeves:

1. I love your accent! (Thanks, it’s all natural.)

2. You’re from England? I went to London once. (Compare: Oh, you’re American? I went to Disneyland once.)

Teachers and social networks

Teachers are social creatures, right? Well, here‘s a disturbing story from just down the road in Apex, North Carolina. A teacher has been suspended after a parent complained to the school board about a comment she posted on her Facebook page.

I don’t think we know all the facts about the situation at the school, but this incident does highlight the importance of maintaining professional distance online. My policy is not to accept “friend” invitations from any current or former students, and if I taught in the school system, I would extend that to parents. I’m sure that can be hard if the parents are also your friends in the community, but personally, I need to draw a line between my”public” persona as a teacher/faculty member and my private opinions.

For the teacher to sound off to her friends about a situation that sounds very difficult is one thing; to do so in virtual earshot of her kids’ parents is another entirely. And information can spread on Facebook, especially in a smallish town like Apex.

Time to take the pruning shears to the friends list?

Exaggerations, hedgings, and boosting

I recently read James Watson’s latest memoir, Avoid Boring People (he of Watson & Crick DNA fame), and one of his “remembered lessons” is this:

Exaggerations do not void basic truths

Books, like plays or movies, succeed best when they exaggerate the truth. In communicating scientific fact to the nonspecialist, there is a huge difference between simplifying for effect and misleading. The issues that scientists must explain to society … require far too many years of training for most people to take hold of them in all their nuances. Sciences will necessarily exaggerate but are ethically obliged to society to exaggerate responsibly. In writing my textbooks I realized that emphasizing exceptions to simple truths was counterproductive and that use of qualifying terms such as probably or possibly was not the way to get ideas across initially.

James D. Watson, Avoid Boring People: Lessons from a Life in Science. Knopf, 2007, p.170

This is curious for many reasons: scientific writing demonstrates a balance between boosting (Watson’s “exaggerations”) and hedging (“qualifying terms” and other linguistic features). In most cases, scientists err on the side of caution and hedge their claims. Boosters are indeed used, but they are seen more in shorter correspondence and, I think, abstracts, including conference abstracts. Perhaps Watson is talking about science writing for general audiences, or at least for teaching purposes, because his most famous writing does not seem to follow his own advice! Continue reading “Exaggerations, hedgings, and boosting”