Thursday, January 21, 2010

In which I become the grammar police

When people discover I'm an English teacher, they sometimes get all weird about watching their grammar. I usually just chuckle because I have enough social grace not to correct adults when they end a sentence with a preposition or drop a double negative into the conversation. It's part of the vernacular I've heard my whole life. While my mother meticulously corrected my non-Standard English, I understand the conventions of our regional Kentucky dialect.

I do make a point of always correcting my students. I don't devalue the language taught them by their mothers and grandmothers. I impress upon them the importance of code-switching. Maybe "you was goin' down yonder" at home or with your friends, but "you were going over there" in an academic or professional setting. By and large, kids get this.

We all get it. We code-switch all the time. My author voice and my teacher voice are different. I choose my words more carefully around my grandmother than I do my best friends. Shoot, when I hang out with certain branches of my family, my accent thickens and the occasional "ain't" falls out of my mouth. HOWEVER, when I am in a professional situation, I absolutely use Standard English. Capital S. Capital E.

When professional people can't code-switch, it crawls all over me. When professional educators can't code-switch, I have to restrain myself from calling them out on the spot.

I recently sat through two days of professional development. The information was great. The presenters were experts. They clearly knew their content, and overall, did a good job of delivering it. Unfortunately, one of the presenters had an annoying grammatical habit. To make her point, she often referred to her practices as a teacher by saying, "I did this my own self." Or "When I did this my personal self..."

ACK!!!! You are talking to a room full of educators. Your own self? Your personal self? Do you have some other self besides your personal self? Your impersonal self, perhaps?

The first time I dismissed it as a slip of the tongue. We all make them. By the third or fourth time, I was rolling my eyes at the English teacher sitting next to me. The fifth or sixth time induced whispered comments, and while I was commenting or chuckling at a comment, I missed the content she was trying to convey. I was seriously distracted by her "own self."

You can't code-switch if you don't know the Standard English rule. No matter how intelligent you are, your speech will give the impression you are an uneducated rube. I preach this to my students. I drill it into my boys' head when I meticulously correct their non-Standard English. I know it's annoying because my mother did it to me. I would ask, "Where's my shirt at?" She would respond, "behind the at."

I'm whispering a prayer of thanks to my mother. People may whisper cattily when I speak, but it won't be because of bad grammar.

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