Guest Curmudgeon: "Learning by Example"
A big welcome back to fellow grouch Debby Dodds. TWC
Learning by Example
by Debby Dodds
I’m in the kitchen making parmesan-crusted tilapia when I hear the ubiquitous steakhouse commercial come on in the next room with the tag line (in a deeply resonant, authoritative male voice), “Live Dangerous!”
I can’t help myself. I scream, “-ly! -ly!” My eight-year-old daughter, who has been watching TV, yells back, “Who is Lee, mom, and why do you need him to come into the kitchen?”
At this point I don’t care if I burn the tilapia. She needs to know that the commercial is wrong. I explain to her that an adverb is needed. “Live dangerously!” should be the admonishing last line. Never mind the potentially more egregious problem inherent an a commercial which is urging patrons to somehow risk their lives by eating at this restaurant. (Why? Food poisoning? Murderous waiters? The building is built on an ancient, haunted cemetery? How is eating this restaurant’s food dangerous?)
But I digress. The point is I know my daughter will be exposed to so much bad grammar it’ll be hard for her to discern the difference between “In a hundred words or less, please tell us why you’d like to win free movie tickets for a year!” and “In a hundred words or fewer…” The second one is correct; words are countable. In fact, the very question is asking you to count the words.
In a magazine, when a feature asks, “Who wore it better?” and there are three celebrities shown wearing the same dress, I should be upset about how sexist and demeaning this is to women with different body types—and I am. But it also irks me that it’s not captioned “Who wore it best?” when three or more people are pictured.
I’m particularly sensitive to this because, although I’m a professional author, I’ve also worked as a SAT and ACT tutor for the last twenty-five years. The hypocrisy of adults asking kids to understand that the idiom “on top of” is wrong and should be “in addition to” when referring to adding an extra discount to the one already given isn’t right when commercials bombard us with the former. How will teens know that “A group of doctors agrees on the cure” is correct subject/verb agreement when most adults can’t tell you what a prepositional phrase is and will use the verb “agree” in that sentence?
I’m far from a prescriptivist when it comes to grammar. I love slang. I get it that the language we use when we talk in casual conversation and when we write a formal essay is different. I love the ever-evolving English language. New words, new usages, new pronouns, even new idioms—it’s all good.
But when we have a billboard that urges people to “Think Different,” how can we expect students to mark a missing “ly” wrong on their ACT? When we have a newscaster reading a teleprompter that says, “That is different than what the mayor expected!” How is a student supposed to know that it should be “different from”?
I know many teachers out there are fighting the good fight, trying to educate students about what is expected of them on standardized tests. But I’m also aware that, with the overcrowding of classrooms, fewer papers are assigned, so students get less practice and feedback.
I explain it like this: You wear different clothes to a wedding in a formal ballroom than you wear to a summer day at the beach. Most students totally understand that. However, if they’re always at the beach and never get to go to a wedding, it’s not a reasonable expectation for them to “just hear the difference.”
Or, as some might say at the beach, “Hear the different.”
Debby Dodds is the author of the novel Amish Guys Don't Call, named a BEST YA OF 2017 by Powell’s Books. In 2018, she had a short story featured in the anthology Strongly Worded Women.