Noun or Adjective? Choose.

April 21, 2014 § Leave a comment

Image“Nobody did good on that test,” Jack Henry says. “She didn’t teach of any of that. It was grammar. We never do grammar.” I am driving, so I have to contain myself a little, but my English teacher blood boils. “ Well. Nobody did well,” I say.”And what do you mean she doesn’t teach grammar? Do you know what an adverb is? A pronoun?” He kind of knows, but not really, not definitively. “What about an antecedent?” I ask. He gives me a blank look.

            “OK,” I say. “I know what we’re doing this summer. We’ll diagram sentences. You’ll love it. It’s like drawing with words.”

            “Mom. Really? I shouldn’t have told you.”

            “Yes, you should have. It’s important.” He rolls his twelve-year-old eyes. I worry though, that if he doesn’t get a handle on language, doesn’t know the names of the pieces of it, he will not be in control of his world. I believe you can speak things into existence if you use the right words. I admit it: I’m a little obsessive about grammar. It’s just that grammar controls not only what you say, but how other people understand you, categorize you, how they place you in the world.

I tell my students this on the first day of each semester. I tell them my favorite word is ustacould, as in “I ustacould do a back bend, but I can’t anymore.” I tell them that I know this isn’t a word for them, but it’s a word that places me. We talk about speaking different Englishes, which is now called “code switching.” I tell them that in order for their academic ideas to be taken seriously, they have to dress them in standard English grammar. 

Last week, I went to see Gloria Steinem speak. She said a lot of insightful things, but the most insightful to me was this: “The powerful get the nouns. The oppressed get the adjectives.” As in female lawyer, instead of just lawyer. Or, male nurse, or African American doctor. Power starts at the sentence level, or maybe even before that, at the word level. She also tells us that 2/3 of the world’s illiterate people are female. All of a sudden, my job teaching English feels as life or death important as a surgeon’s. It’s low paying still, but the grammar I teach can change the power a person has in the world. I won’t even get started on the impact of pronouns.

I tell my students to make sure they avoid the passive voice, that they need to have a clear subject, an actor in the sentence. Now, I need to tell them to claim the noun and be more than the adjectives that describe them. We are the subjects of our own sentences. We are who or what does something, if we want to do anything. This summer, Jack Henry  and I will draw the words out  and claim them.

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