75. Parts of Speech, Oh, No!

yol 3The next posts are tagged teaching, as well as the usual SF, fantasy and writing. I taught school for twenty-seven years, mostly science, along with a little of everything else, including reading and writing. So pardon me while I rant a little.

My idea of Hell is being an English teacher, working all day with textbooks written by Satan’s emissaries, then going home and spending all night correcting horrible writing. My idea of an angel is someone who does that out of duty, or love of writing, or love of children.

The problem with English textbooks is that they are written by people who can’t write. Or rather, have only written for other English teachers, who learned their trade by writing for other English teachers, who learned their trade . . .

If textbook writers had to sell their wares at Barnes and Noble, they would starve. But people don’t buy textbooks, bureaucrats do.

Let’s start with the most basic lie textbooks tell.

Your Own Language, 3: Parts of Speech, Oh, No!

The next time someone asks you if (insert word of your choice) is a noun, the correct answer is:

  • Yes
  • No
  • Sometimes, but not always
  • It all depends.

That seems evasive, but it is actually the correct answer.

Parts of speech exist and are critically important in understanding and mastering English, but they are not things, they are functions. I am tempted to say verbs not nouns, but partially accurate analogies confuse more than they help.

Wait! I saw you reaching for that off switch.

Of course you are an adult, and far from grammar school (an interesting concept, “grammar school”) but some of you are teachers and most of you are parents, or will be. I want to show you a fallacy. It won’t take long.

Parts of speech morph. Verbs turn into nouns, which turn into verbs again, sometimes with odd results. When I was a boy, if a salesman had said he had to service his customers, he would have been making an off-color sexual reference. Service meant sex, in absence of emotion; bulls serviced cows. Or it meant the carrying out of a mechanical act. The serviceman (noun) at the service (adjective) station serviced (verb) your car.

A salesman served (verb) his customers, and that act was the service (noun) he provided for them. Over my lifetime I have seen the noun service become a verb again with results that still sound wrong to my ear.

Nail. It is a word, but it is not a part of speech. It can act as a part of speech, that is, it can take on a function, but which function it takes on can’t be guessed by seeing the word in isolation.

“He hung his shirt on a nail.” Clearly nail is a noun here because of its function in a sentence.

“Nail that board back up on the fence where the dog knocked it down.” Clearly nail is a verb here because of its function.

“His new nail gun increased his productivity.” Here nail is an adjective.

Most of the time, as children in school, or as adults learning a foreign language, we get our parts of speech as lists to be memorized in isolation. If a child is told to memorize a list of nouns – bat, ball, dog, horse, house – we have already begun a lifelong pattern of generating ignorance. The brightest students will learn in spite of the handicaps thrown in their way; the rest will decide they are too stupid to learn. And all because we taught them things that aren’t true.


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