Sunday, April 06, 2008

Subprime Grammar

Tucked into the English Reference section at Barnes & Noble, next to titles like “Painless Grammar,” “Woe is I,” and “Grammar for Dummies,” are several copies of a new little work with the crude but catchy title, “Grammar Sucks.” That a writer and editor – presumably word-and-grammar people themselves – would choose that vulgar verb, and popular attitude, to hook potential buyers into improving their shaky grasp of grammar; and that a major national bookstore chain would bet that such a title would sell, shows you how just low the subject of grammar has sunk.

Meanwhile, speaking of sinking, there’s the economy: the credit market, the housing market, the job market, and – if you’re thinking “interest rates,” that would be “cut,” or “slash,” not “sink.” Gas and airline prices are on the rise, making our spirits sink. And then there’s that clump of words that appears almost daily on the front pages: “the subprime mortgage crisis,” usually followed by “troubled investment bank,” “bailout,” and, for those of us outside the financial industry, this year’s newest vocabulary word, “writedown” (n.) meaning the amount (these days, in billions of dollars – i.e. unimaginable amounts) that at least ten major international investment banks are writing off their books (at a loss to all the shareholders) mostly through subprime mortgage deals, which seem to have triggered the whole economic mess.

The public’s taste, or really, distaste, for learning grammar has been at an ebb for decades, while the economy’s drubbing is fairly new. Still, it’s no coincidence that the two have arrived at the same lousy point – not that the government is bailing banks out due to improper use of past participles or irregular verbs. Rather, where grammar and troubled banks are linked is at the core, with structure.

On the grammar side, the whole notion that “grammar is boring” is something that came out of the 60’s, when traditional ideas were tossed in favor of snazzier, more fun ways of learning. Take “Sesame Street,” for example: learning with Muppets was fun, and by now, generations of preschoolers have learned their ABC’s by watching bouncing, talking, or morphing letters on their TV screens.

Alas, Bert and Ernie did not go into nouns, verbs, objects, comma placement, or the subjunctive case. Maybe they thought it wouldn’t be fun, or age appropriate, or that it would turn away their core audience. (Though adult caregivers might have watched.) Apparently, progressive English teachers could not come up with a fun way to impart grammar either, and the pedagogical philosophy that emerged was, “No more grammar lessons -- let students learn by DOING!” So students wrote, and teachers corrected, mostly fitfully, per essay, and not in any orderly, formal manner.

And in the beginning, that attitude seemed refreshing, and even democratic: who was to say one person’s grammar was better than another’s, as long as we could all understand each other. “Have it your way,” went the famous 1974 Burger King ad, which was revived in 2004 and still, unwittingly, stands for so much in American culture, including speaking and grammar.

True, you can learn by doing. But even young, natural athletes need a coach to help them perfect their pitching, slap shots, or swings. Similarly, we also need teachers to help us sharpen our ability to communicate clearly -- and we need an understanding of grammar to do this.

Grammar is the system of rules that guides how words are put together to make sentences; those rules, developed over centuries of speaking, provide the underlying structure to a language. A three-year-old can grasp a language’s structure and speak fluently and fairly grammatically.

But around 3rd or 4th grade, it’s a good idea to start to teach children grammar rules, because if you understand the parts of speech (nouns, verbs, etc.) then you can go on to understand the parts of a sentence (subject, object, etc.); and if you understand those two components, which include punctuation, you’ll have the necessary tools and knowledge to shape your ideas in clear, solid, dangling-modifier-free, and even eloquent English.

Remember “Mad Libs”? They’re still around. The gap-filled pages provide the story structure, while you (without looking) provide the parts of speech; the results, when read aloud, are wacky, or plain nonsense, but it is all grammatically correct. That is the beauty of grammar – its structure holds even when word choice inhibits the meaning.

I recently experimented with a 16-year-old, extremely smart, native-English speaking student of mine, who has never been taught grammar in school. I had her fill in a Mad-Lib-style sentence that used the opening line to “Pride and Prejudice” for its structure. I asked her for certain parts of speech and the results were not exactly Jane Austen: “It is a tragedy not wanted that a mournful clown in possession of a stingy cat must be in wont of a mouse.” Nonsense, yes – but grammatical, absolutely.

Not providing knowledge of grammar prevents children, and many adults, from correctly and concisely constructing more complex thoughts. For example: Last month, in his first statement to the press about his affair with a prostitute, ex-governor of New York Eliot Spitzer said, “I am disappointed and failed to live up to the standard I expected of myself.”

True, Spitzer got the reflexive pronoun (“myself”) part right; but in addition to failing his own standards, the ex-gov failed to tell us what he was disappointed with (or by, or in), as in: “I am disappointed in my behavior,” for instance, or maybe just disappointed that he got caught. But he shouldn’t have just hung his disappointment there without some specific object. It sounds weak and muddled and only compounds his current image.

Commenting on Spitzer’s departure in his foreword to the March issue, the editor of “Institutional Investor” magazine, Michael Carroll, needed a teacher to wrap his knuckles for this unwieldy sentence: “Spitzer’s apology at least puts to rest any thought that he might try to argue that he had gone undercover, as it were, to see whether the ratings assigned by the Emperors Club to its employees were accurate in much the same way that he and his minions once investigated the accuracy of reports written by Wall Street’s research analysts – and found them wanting.”

President Bush, currently the Leader of the Mangled Word, is old enough to have been taught grammar before they took it out of the curriculum. But that doesn’t mean teaching grammar is a waste of time for everyone: just because I failed to dissect my frog properly doesn’t mean other biology students shouldn’t get to try.

At least thirty years have passed since our nation’s public schools required young minds to identify subjects and predicates or an object of a preposition (“A what?!” you shriek.) So now our teachers – those born in the 60’s, 70’s or early 80’s – do not have the foundation for grammar necessary to teach their students, our children. Yet grammar-challenged parents determined to somehow teach grammar to their offspring, or even to themselves, can always head to their nearest bookstore English reference section and find books like “Grammar Sucks” to explain it all to them in dumbed-down, ironic prose.

Which brings us to the whole subprime mortgage crisis/credit market mess – or a total lack of structure. Now, I can only explain this financial stuff in Language Lady terms, so don’t go running off to the head of Goldman Sachs to check on every point. But big picture:

Pick a “structure” metaphor – would you invest in a house without beams; a book without a spine; wine without a bottle? A while ago, as a way to make more money, banks (local and big ones) invented and started selling financial products, called (ironically) “structured investment vehicles;” they sold these products to millions of investors here and around the world, with many banks keeping some of the riskier/potentially more profitable products for themselves.

Imagine a cake box as your structured product. Your financial advisor tells you it’s AAA-rated and a solid investment that will yield a delicious yellow cake with fabulous chocolate frosting; so you hand over your money and wait for the cake to rise. But the ingredients inside are not what you think – in fact, the ingredients (which include loans with enticing initial interest rates – i.e., interest rates lower than the prime interest rate, or “subprime” -- to people with less-than-stellar credit) are completely incapable of producing a cake at all, and what you get instead is a runny, gooey mess. The structure – the box – was a sham.

But who’s to blame? The whole structured product business was put together, pre-fab chip-by-pre-fab chip, by loads of investors, banks, etc. – i.e. people – who had gotten used to following their own guidelines, whether financial or grammatical.

Which is not to say that had investors and bankers, as elementary and middle school students, been forced to learn the principles of solid sentence structure, they would not have created today’s economic mess. But you never know: an unconscious, innate respect for structure might have set off some kind of inner alarm bell in at least a few people.

Sherlock Holmes, the brilliant, fictional detective whose success was grounded in the structure of reason and deduction, would certainly never have bought a structured product without knowing to the molecule what it contained. And Sherlock’s talents might have led some structure-abiding financial authority to force Sherlock’s broker to break down the contents of the, ultimately, bad product.

Say some grammar-knowledgeable investors had read the finer points on their structured vehicle contracts and noticed some dangling modifiers or strangled syntax. Further investigation on their part might have revealed a similarly weak structural product – and ended the deal before any money was traded. The failure of that deal and others like it may have prompted the corollary that bad grammar is a smoke signal for weak structural thinking and therefore, possibly, a bad investment.

The good news is that the notorious college entrance exam, the S.A.T., has recently added a grammar component to the test. This will surely prompt a revival of grammar classes in schools and language institutes across the land – for teachers (to finally learn it) and students alike.

But improvement – on the economic and grammar fronts – will take time, effort, and patience. And with all that maybe, someday, (right -- in my dreams), I’ll come across a book with the title, Grammar’s Sweet!”