The March 17-18 edition of the International Herald Tribune contained the following quotations:
- After his team’s first round loss in the NCAA Tournament, Duke University basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski said, “There’s 260 or 270 teams that don’t get into this thing. It’s not our birthright each year.”
- In a story about services that help people maximize results from the online dating experience, Mindy Starke of Singleshots.com said, “There’s a lot of anxiety about this purchase [of her service] because there’s no guarantees…”
Over the past few years, “there’s” has slowly but steadily replaced “there are” in our speech to the point where it is now almost surprising to hear someone actually say something as odd as “There are several reasons for this shift.” Perhaps I’m feeling a bit like the classic grammar curmudgeon because I’ve been grading papers all week, but it does make me wonder where we’s headed with the English language? Is “there’s” but a symptom of a larger degeneration of the rules of grammar and syntax? And should we care?
A colleague of mine in the English Department recently predicted that capitalization would become a quaint affectation within another decade. After all, he opined, how many professors do you know already who don’t capitalize at all in their email messages? I had to admit that the number was growing every year and that, when I’m using instant messaging, I rarely capitalize myself. This admission earned me a weary nod from my colleague. “You see,” he said, “even you are on the slippery slope.”
Which brings me to the issue of where grammar and syntax ought to fit in grading schemes in a history class. A common lament from my students over the past decade goes something like this: “This is not an English class!” We’ve all heard it before, typically when we hand back papers covered in red ink and with substantially reduced grades.
What is our obligation as historians, as educators, to help our students improve their command of written English? Should we, as they often hope, focus only on the ideas expressed in the essay and not on the form those ideas take on the page? Or should we demand more from them?
Because I worked in the business world for ten years before becoming a professor, I’m not willing to let careless usage pass without consequences. I know, as our students know but sometimes don’t want to admit, that command of written and spoken English is a clear marker of class distinction in the world of white-collar employment. If you were to turn in a report to your supervisor that had as many errors of spelling, grammar, and syntax as the average student essay, you would find yourself stuck in a dead end at most employers. Only those with outstanding talent that transcends their need to write—the gifted author of code, the investment savant, the intuitive salesperson—can get by without command of the dominant language of our culture.
And so I think it is our obligation to make almost every course on campus “an English course” of sorts.
Call me crazy, a premature curmudgeon, or just stubborn, but I think we do our students a disservice if we don’t teach them that there are many good reasons to get it right the first time.