The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"Time flies like an arrow.  Fruit flies like a banana."...  ...Groucho Marx.

Commentary of the Day - March 18, 2004:  I Jumped the Biggest Turtle.  Guest commentary by Felice Prager.

Some of us have the eye. Some of us have the ear. Some of us have both.  When we hear or see them, they give us that fingernails-across-the-chalkboard sensation.   They can be found on TV, on the Internet, in advertisements, in magazines, and in newspapers.  Without mentioning names, they have even been found in love letters.  We who have the eye, the ear, or both vow we will not be part of it.  We will strive for perfection.  We take oaths in secret societies and grumble a lot.  We will respect the language.  We will follow the rules and not stray.  We swear against the use of word shortcuts and emoticons.  We will not succumb to the mass hysteria of abbreviated laziness.  We will not substitute "u" for "you", "r" for "are", or "luv" for "love".  We will not type "cuz", "prolly", or "w/o".  Our writing will be without phrases like "CUL8er", "imho", and "brb".  We will not follow the crowd.  If we have to, we will stand out in the hurricane sharing the same grammar umbrella.  Perhaps we will drown, get blown away, get pneumonia, or at least get very wet.  So be it when the argument has grammar rules as the foundation.

My name is Felice and I am a grammarholic.

Hello, Felice.

Lately I have been getting hives because of commas and enunciation.  It does not take much to set off the allergic reaction.  Sometimes it can be capital letters.  Sometimes it can be spelling.  This time, all I needed was one innocent, unsuspecting student who mumbled, almost incoherently, "Grammar is dumb."

"Grammar is not dumb," I replied with the same "is not" "is too" "is not" mentality I used when I was her age.  Grammar criticism reduces me to my most infantile state.  I pout.  I kick things.  I thrash around on the floor.  I go off on tangents and become incoherent.

"Using proper grammar, proper spelling, and proper enunciation make a big difference in the meaning of what you're trying to communicate and how others see you," I expounded.  "What you say or write is often the first impression people may have of you."  An experienced educator should have known better.  She would have realized that I had turned off this student right there, but I could not leave it alone.  Not me!  I had to pick. I had to probe.  I had to turn a tiny booboo into a major wound.  I had to make a point to an unreceptive audience in spite of my better judgment.  With that, I continued to enlighten this puzzled pre-teen whose specialty is four-word sentences, Orlando Bloom trivia, and mascara application.  I used examples which I have had stored within the minutiae of my mind forever.  I suppose it's kind of like the word "minutia", a word I would have gotten right on the SATs had it come up.  It did not, and for the last three decades, I have tried to throw "minutia" into every conversation about minutiae that I possibly can.  This time I was using a storehouse of sentences I had collected about misplaced letters and commas.

First, I wrote this in blue on the white board. I wrote the comma in red:

Fetch the paper, boy!
Fetch the paperboy!

"Do you see the difference?" I asked her.

"Fetch?" she asked.  "What's fetch?"

"Don't you have a dog?  Haven't you ever asked a dog to fetch something?"

"I like cats," she said.  "Cats don't fetch."

I erased the sentences, and I wrote another example:

Felice was a lighthouse keeper.
Felice was a light housekeeper.

"Yeah, so?" she said.

"Look at them carefully," I responded.

"I don't see the difference," she said.

I explained the difference.

She sighed and looked at the clock.

"My mother has a maid," she said.  "You should get a maid."

"I can't afford a maid," I told her.

I showed her another:

I jumped the biggest hurdle.
I jumped the biggest turtle.

"I don't get it," she said.

"Read them out loud to me," I instructed.

"I jumped the biggest hurdle. I jumped the biggest turtle," she quickly muttered without distinction.

They both sounded the same the way she read them.

"Enunciate the words," I instructed.

"Enunciate?" she said.  "Is that like Email?"

"Pronounce the words clearly," I clarified.

"I jumped the biggest hurdle.  I jumped the biggest turtle," she said again.

They both still sounded the same.

I read them to her making sure I exaggerated the words that could be confused.

"That's what I said," she whined.

"No, you didn't."

"Yes, I did."

I looked at the clock and sighed.

"Try this one," I suggested.

What is that in the road ahead?
What is that in the road, a head?

"Yeah, so?" she said.

"Read them both."

She did.

"Enunciate!  Pause when you see a comma," I said.

She gave me a look.

My own children often give me the same look.

I sometimes give my children that same look.

I am not allowed to give that look to my students.

"Work with me," I said.  "Read the sentences clearly."

"So there's a head in the road. Big deal," she said.  "Can't we do something else?  This is boring."

"Life is boring," I said profoundly.  "I'm trying to teach you something valuable."

"Is it time to go yet?" she asked.

"One more," I told her. "Then you can leave."

Can you see anybody there?
Can you see any body there?

 "They're the same," she said.

 "No, they're not," I said.

 "Yes, they are," she replied.  "Anybody.  Any body.  Same thing.  You're really obsessing about the same thing."

 "No, I'm not," I said.

 "Yes, you are," she replied.  "Anybody.  Any body.  You're making something out of nothing."

 "No, I'm not," I said.

 "Yes, you are," she replied.

I think I scared her when I started to cry.

 © 2004 Felice Prager
Felice Prager is a former English teacher and freelance writer from Arizona.  She publishes the Write Funny pages.

The IP comments:  Thanks Felice for giving me a chance to use that tangentially appropriate Groucho Marx quotation.

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