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Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Academic English

I thought I knew what "Academic English" was. Recently I discovered this question raised on another Blog.

I was taught that there should be a comma preceding the "and" in a series. During my early teaching days, that comma, commonly called the Harvard comma disappeared from newspapers. I discovered it was economic, yes, economic. That comma represented the savings of hundred if not thousands of dollars every day. That comma took time to place in the old typesetting days, to create into lead, to melt down after a run. How many of these commas were eliminated in a daily paper like the New York Times? So was this an academic decision or an economic one? As a teacher I had to accept both and that becomes confusing for the scholars. It also becomes a method of sifting through people. I remember submitting a document to a publisher and I used the comma. It was noticed by the editor and commented on favorably. My piece was published with it. Now if I had not used the comma would my piece have been published or edited. When I submitted a piece later on, I purposely omitted the comma. Though it was published the omitted comma appeared. I reviewed grammar books for our department and a new grammar book was submitted with an amended comma rule about series said both including the comma or not was acceptable. Consistency was emphasized. Now we have a new criteria, "consistency."

Another change that seemed to evolve from the people was that tricky pronoun antecedent rule of using a singular pronoun with a singular noun. In a sentence, "Everyone be sure to take his umbrella with him." became "Everyone be sure to take their umbrella with them." Quite clearly the second sentence is grammatically incorrect, but it is "politically correct." That was why I started using "hir" a portmanteau of "his and her" because I found "Everyone be sure to take his/her umbrella with him/her." very cumbersome and so awkward.

During my early years of teaching, I used the classic Winston cigarette commercial as a grammar mistake. "Winston tastes good, like a cigarette should" was a very popular saying when I was growing up and cigarette commercials flourished. Of course it should be, "Winston tastes good, as a cigarette should." Serendipity found me as one of my student's father wrote that line and he explained that it was a class thing. He wrote the line correctly. The company changed it to be more "blue collar." It was a class issue and this made sense as we learned later cigarette companies did this kind of targeting of class, race, and sex. In taht same school, I mentioned the road sign "Drive Slow" as being incorrect. Within the month I noticed an "ly" added to the "Slow" on these road signs near school.

I love our spelling rules. Consider the first rule: "I before E." is a fine rule. The problem is the rest of it. Immediately we have an exception, "Except after C." Why this exception? Then we have a second exception, "or when sounding like 'ay' as in neighbor or weigh." So now we have a good rule with two exceptions built into the rule. So how do words like, " their, weird and either, foreign, seize and neither, leisure, forfeit and height" work into this rule? This is absolutely crazy. "Academic English" is a problem. Consider another one of my favorite spelling rules. Why do we have three ways of spelling "cede, ceed, sede"? One uses "sede," 'supersede. Three use "ceed," "proceed, succeed, exceed." All the rest use "cede." So why are these four spelled differently? Why not simply have all of them use "cede"?

I loved what happened in 1996 with Ebonics. This issue raised some important questions about language and how it relates to class, race, and even sex. Language is ever evolving. We constantly add words. Recently I wrote about the possible demise of 24 words for lack of use. In the same time period, 200 words were added. Now with the rapid growth of technology and the globalization of us has made the concept of "Academic English" an issue of elitism perhaps.

So who determines "Academic English"? Do we the people determine it? Do our businesses determine it? Do college professors determine it? Do publishers determine it? Noah Webster did this with the publication of the Blue Back Speller. What is "Academic English" and who determines it?

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