Seeing Grammar

I like the idea of seeing error as seeing the text (and the writer) through a very specific cultural lens and interpreting it as error, even thought there really is nothing physically erroneous about it. Grammar “errors” are really just a culturally specific way of interpreting specific textual features. The same text can be interpreted or read, many different ways and seeing “errors” is a choice that could be made differently.

The example that popped into my head comes from the first episode of the new season of Modern Family. In it, a couple has just found out they won’t be able to adopt a new baby, and as consolation to their adopted daughter, obtain a very large stuffed gorilla and stuffed elephant. When they decide to get rid of the elephant and the gorilla, their car is too small and they must tie the stuffed animals to the roof. It gets pointed out later that the animals have been attached to the roof in a sexually suggestive position. When Cam, who tied the animals to the roof, placed them there, he wasn’t trying to be sexually suggestive. He saw the animals as cargo to be put somewhere to be disposed of. Only later does someone point out to him that the animals’ position could be interpreted that way. But the thing is, there was nothing inherently sexual about it. The view of the animals in this perspective was imposed on the animals outside of themselves. This of course is great for comedic events in the show, but in a very real ways shows what happens with students when they commit “ errors.” We say, “well they obviously didn’t proofread their paper because they would have seen these errors if they had.” These “ errors” are so obvious to us only because we have been trained to see them that way. If someone would have said to Cam, “If Cam would have just looked at the animals on his roof, he would have seen his error and corrected it.” But the thing is, I am one hundred percent sure Cam stood back and looked at the animals on the roof and, looking through his perspective of cargo on the roof, would have assessed that he had done a fine job of placing them there. In much the same way, our students are proud to have gotten words on the page, and arranged them into an essay. However, they don’t see it through the same lens as we do, because they haven’t had the same past experiences with the grammar as we have. In much the same way, the people that looked at the gorilla and elephant as being sexually suggestive have had past experiences seeing real animals (or themselves) in similar sexual positions, and these experiences inform their perception of the situation. However, a child, for instance, who has not had any experiences that would lead them to connect the positions of the animals with sexual intercourse, would never see the animals that way. They have to be taught that perspective. It’s not naturally occurring.

So how do we teach students that perspective? Well, just like what is required to see the stuffed animals as humping rather than simply as cargo on top of a car, they have to have had experiences in the past in which the connect misspellings, poor subject-verb agreement, cliches, etc. with error. Their innocence about words has to be lost. They have to learn that words on a page will never be seen as simply words on a page, but that the reader is going to bring with it all kinds of assumptions and biases, and these experiences have to be meaningful and salient. For me, I didn’ t really start to understand grammar until my junior year of college, after I had already taken all my other required English courses and had already decided to become a fiction writer and been through work shops where I had allowed others to interpret my writing and seen the limitations of my ability to translate my thoughts to the page and then into the minds of my readers. In other words, it wasn’t until I had been “primed” to see words on the page as something other than self-evident physical objects. Learning grammar is going to happen when a student wants it to happen and when she wants it to happen. Once she has lost her innocence about the straightforward nature of writing, then she’ll be able to see the gorilla humping the elephant.

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