Monthly Archives: May 2007

Grammar Wednesday

One of the things I love so much about Grammar Wednesdays is that, in teaching you things, I get to learn new things, too!

CaliforniaTeacherGuy sent me this on Sunday:

Dear Mrs. Chili,

Would you consider doing (or maybe you already have done) a rant about that seemingly ubiquitous and utterly abhorrent Americanism “to go missing”? Just a few minutes ago I was reading the local newspaper and stumbled across this paragraph:

A rare sea turtle–albeit a dead one–returned to the San Diego Natural Museum on Friday, three years after it went missing.


That whole sentence makes me shudder. First of all, if the turtle is dead, how did it return to the museum of its own volition? And then there’s that loathsome phrase, “went missing,” as if “missing” were a destination in the English countryside–along with Little Missing, Greater Missing, Missing Camden, and Hither Missing. (Get the picture?!)

Let me know what you think of my idea. If I see it on your blog next Wednesday, I’ll assume you thought well of it.
Not only did I think well of CTG’s question, but it sent me immediately off on a giddy, geeky quest to get to the proverbial bottom of the matter. I’d never stopped to question this structure, myself; I just always took it for an idiom (though my impression was that it began as a British expression) and left it at that.

The source of CTG’s frustration, as I read it, is that he’s taking “go” to mean “to move or proceed,” as in I go to the gym four days a week. He rightly points out that “missing” isn’t a destination – one can’t actually go there. Further, I’d be willing to bet that his angst is furthered by the idea that “going” involves some volition on the part of the subject and, generally, one does not kidnap or otherwise cause oneself to disappear.

“Go,” however, has many different definitions (I was surprised to see how many!), and the one that works with the phrase to go missing is the same one that we use to express things like to go crazy or to go amiss; namely the fourth definition in my favorite dictionary, “to become as specified.”

Someone much smarter than I wrote a comprehensive piece on this very question. Go here to read; he’ll make more sense than I did here.

Sooza emailed me yesterday to ask if I would shed some light on semicolons. I had a flash of memory of having discussed those here before, so I did some checking and found the post here. Let me know if you need anything clarified.

Happy Wednesday, All! Keep those Grammar Wednesday questions coming!


Filed under Grammar

They Are Temporal Provincials!

Alternately titled: The Universe is NOT Subtle

I picked up Michael Crichton’s Timeline on Saturday; I’d caught a bit of the movie on the SciFi channel when I was surfing the other day, and it reminded me how much I LOVED the book (the film, however, was a huge disappointment; don’t bother). I’m reading some pretty heavy material right now – I’m in the middle of two books dealing with war and war crimes at the moment – so I thought I’d revisit this really fun tale of quantum travel.

Seventy-three pages into it, I came to this passage:

He had a term for people like this; temporal provincials – people who were ignorant of the past, and proud of it.

Temporal provincials were convinced that the present was the only time that mattered, and that anything that had occurred earlier could be safely ignored. The modern world was compelling and new, and the past had no bearing on it. Studying history was as pointless as learning Morse code, or how to drive a horse-drawn wagon. And the medieval period – all those knights in clanking armor and ladies in gowns and pointy hats – was so obviously irrelevant as to be beneath consideration.

Yet the truth was that the modern world was invented in the Middle Ages. Everything from the legal system, to nation-states, to reliance on technology, to the concept of romantic love had first been established in medieval times. These stockbrokers owed the very notion of a market economy to the Middle Ages, and if they didn’t know that, then they didn’t know the basic facts of who they were*: why they did what they did, where they had come from.

Professor Johnston onften said that if you didn’t know history, you didn’t know anything. You were a leaf that didn’t know it was part of a tree.

*my emphasis

I’m bringing this passage in to class today.


Filed under concerns, Learning, Literature, Teaching

A Case for Gen. Eds.

images3.jpegI’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about the work that I do.

Most of you know, though some of you may not, that I teach English at Tiny Community College here in my New England hometown. All English courses at TCC – Grammar (a.k.a. Foundational English), Literature, Composition, and Effective Communication (a.k.a. public speaking) – are required courses – General Education Requirements, or Gen. Eds. – that every student, regardless of program, has to pass. This essentially means that, in any given class of, say, twenty students, there are probably twenty of them who would rather not be there.

I’ve been lucky so far in that I’ve had at least one or two students in every class I’ve taught who, if they didn’t necessarily want to be there, at least made very little fuss about it and, once or twice, really got into the flow of the class and participated in meaningful ways. Most of the time, though, I’m playing to a very, very reluctant crowd. I feel fortunate to have students offer answers – most of the time I have to actually call on kids to respond to a question I put out, and I often have to stand in awkward silence while I insist that they actually offer me a substantive answer. The quality of the thinking that gets done in my classes is often staggeringly disappointing, and I am regularly struck with feelings of helplessness as I record failing grades for yet another student who cannot read, write, or think much better when she leaves my class than she did when she arrived.

My Tuesday/Thursday public speaking class offered up a bit of resistance this past week, which has been part of the motivation for my thinking so much about the classes I teach and the objective, intrinsic value that they may or may not have. A vocal minority of students suggested to me on Thursday that the material that I was presenting to them as models for the kinds of speeches we were studying were meaningless to them; that they had no connections with the material, the history, the modern implications, or the overall messages that the speeches strove to deliver (and I should note here that their complaints were not nearly so eloquent. What I actually got was “we don’t get it”).

It has been suggested to me, both by a few students in that class (the one or two who actually choose to engage me in this conversation) and by several of my readers (thanks, you guys!) that this isn’t necessarily news and isn’t particularly noteworthy. There is a deep and persistent characteristic of apathy in the current generation of students – from middle school on up – that precludes them from putting forth an effort toward anything that isn’t seen to have immediate or obvious relevance to their lives right-now-this-very-second.

Whether this is due to over-indulgent parents or the immediacy of technology (24 hour, spoon-fed news, video games, instant messaging, whatever), I cannot say with any kind of authority. What I CAN say, though, is that I see it as an alarming trend, and my magic crystal ball tells me that we’re heading for dire and drastic ruin if we don’t do something about it, and fast. Pretty soon, we won’t be able to talk to each other at all anymore.

Look, I had to take Gen. Eds. in college, too. I was an English major (duh! Really, Mrs. Chili?! We never would have guessed!) and, during the course of my undergraduate studies, was compelled to take several science, math, art and music courses that, at the time, I didn’t really see the need for and, as I write this, can’t recall very much about. I remember joking – in a not-quite-joking way – that the only reason I passed my math requirements was that I was living with an engineer (thanks, Honey!). I chose the dumbest science courses I could get – “Food and People” and “Forestry,” if memory serves. While I enjoyed the art and music classes, I can’t really tell you anything that I LEARNED from them.

This leads me to my point, though; while I may not recall much of the content of the courses, I can say with absolute certainty that they were excellent learning experiences. I received a background – a foundation – in a lot of different things, but it’s not necessarily the material that I hold as important (obviously, because I can’t remember any of it); what’s important is that I got experience in thinking and researching and considering things that fell outside of my area of concentration. I learned how to classify things in the forestry class and how to conduct a scientific study in the nutrition class. Could I do those things well now? No; I couldn’t, but that doesn’t really matter. What matters is that I had the experience of doing those things, and in having that experience, I can connect it with other experiences that I have had – and may have in the future – to make that new learning richer and more meaningful.

I may be rambling at this point, so let me bring myself back: what I’m saying here is that my experiences of taking the math and science classes – of taking all the classes I took that didn’t directly involve the study of English – have made me a better scholar, a better thinker, and a better person. I learned,a little bit more, how to think in those classes, and to think in ways that my English courses didn’t require of me. An example: Bowyer, who is one of my very best friends, is a biology teacher and knows an awful lot about science. I don’t, but the fact that I’ve had the experiences I’ve had – and some of them as a result of being forced into classes as a requirement for my degree – give me at least some base upon which to relate to him when he starts talking technical near me. I don’t feel as though I’m too dumb to talk to him when he starts in on his long and detailed discussions about anatomy or genetics or disease. We have at least a cursory grasp of a common language and experience that make communication, if not equitable, then at least possible.

What I’m saying, in my verbose and roundabout way, is that I think that Gen. Eds. are necessary, if not for the content they deliver, than for the experiences they provide. Would my students have ever come across Albert Speer’s chilling prophesy of the coming capabilities of humans to make war if they hadn’t taken my class? Would they have ever actually heard Martin Luther King Jr.’s masterpiece speech about civil rights and America’s unkept promises if not for this course, or would they just have had some vague notion about something about a dream? Are my students going to remember, in five years, the words of the man who was audacious enough to suggest that we hope for the future? Will they be able to define what a social contract is, or discuss the nuances between imply and infer?

Maybe they would have seen and heard and thought about these things, but I’m going to guess not, simply because they can’t go out of their way to really engage with the material I’m handing them – I’m certain they wouldn’t have sought out these experiences on their own (any more than I would have sought out a statistics class – thanks again, Honey! – or a music course). The fact that they DID encounter these things, though – and the fact that they saw me get excited and intense and curious about these things – leaves me with a glimmer of hope. I truly believe that, at some point in their lives – and, hopefully, in the not-too-distant future – they’ll come across something that sparks a tiny flicker of remembrance, and they’ll be able to draw upon the experiences we shared to inform their new learning, or to encourage them to enter into a dialogue that challenges the edges of their current understanding.

Hey, wait a minute – didn’t I learn something like this in Mrs. Chili’s class?

It’s really the best I can hope for.


Filed under concerns, Learning, Questions, Teaching

I Take It Back…

… some of them DO get it.

Observe samples from two students who responded to my letter:

As for myself in today’s class, I had not had breakfast and I had just woken up so I was kind of a zombie and I apologize, but as for everyone else, they are just bitching. I’ve seen this in all of my gen ed courses. It is a required course so it’s probably not on the top of anyone’s priority list for classes. It seems as though the people who do not like these speeches are not going to like any speeches. These are very good speeches with great points and just overall great pieces of work. This may seem like I’m rambling on but I just can’t stand when people do not try and work with what they have for the material in the classes they have to take, instead they don’t get it and just decide to complain. These are the kind of people you can try and please, but 9 times out of 10, you cannot find anything they are going to like.  I think it’s a great class, but these seem like the kind of kids that don’t want to work with what they have and since they don’t like the class, they are going to pretend like they have reasons to back it up when the underlying factor is simply that the course is not something they wanted to take in the first place. Maybe I’m wrong, I don’t know but this seems to be the same thing that happens in all of my general education classes. 


 I have to say that I found both speeches to be moving and thought provoking. I feel that I walked away from class, not only with a better idea about speaking well, but with a better knowledge of history. I even went home and discussed the Reagan speech with my father (who was very impressed by your choice, by the way). Don’t question yourself. I think all of the speeches we have read or listened to have been helpful and more so, eye opening. Don’t dumb it down for the people who don’t even try to understand the messages. 

I do worry that opening up the speech choices will amount to “dumbing down” the curriculum.  I also find it interesting that the students who tend to complain about the curriculum are the same students who don’t seem willing to take chances and really participate in class discussions about the material.  I’m not sure if that’s a chicken-and-egg kind of thing (do they not participate because they don’t understand, or do they not understand because they don’t participate?) but the point remains that I really believe that exposure to these kinds of materials is important and academically necessary.

I worry that many students don’t have a very broad base of experiences upon which to build their education – they don’t have the kind of scope and breadth of knowledge that helps them to make meaningful connections between the things they know and the things they’re learning – and I feel that part of my responsibility as a teacher is to try to work those kinds of experiences into my classroom.  I’ll look into including more “accessible” work, but I’m not going to take out the things that I think are fruitful and important and challenging;  I’m going to  keep making my choices based on what I think best serves the lessons I’m trying to convey in class, and hope that, every once in a while, I may open up doors that students may not have peeked behind yet.


Filed under Learning, Teaching

They Don’t Get It

Today, we went over two speeches in my public speaking class.  The first was Albert Speer’s closing statement in the Nuremberg Tribunal (the full text of which I can’t find in one place on the internet, or I’d give you the link), and the second was Reagan’s Remarks at the Brandenburg Gate speech.

I was absolutely thrilled by how nicely these two speeches worked together.  Delivered some 41 years apart, both works discussed many of the same ideas and concepts surrounding technology, warfare, and the oppression of people under political regimes.  I was really excited about being able to use the two speeches together, and about comparing and contrasting the main points of the works while we analyzed the structure and mechanics of the speeches themselves.

My students, though?  Most of them said they just didn’t get it.

I sent the class an email this morning, and I’m REALLY hoping to get some thoughtful responses from them.  I would also really appreciate feedback from you, Dear Readers, upon whom I rely for a lot of perspective in my quest to become a better teacher.

Dear Class:

I’d like for you to give me some of the feedback that we almost started to talk about in class today.  Several of you made the comment that the speeches I’ve chosen for you to read haven’t really grabbed you; that you felt disconnected and apathetic about the material we’ve been working with; that you don’t “get it” or that you simply don’t care.  What I’m interested in knowing is this; if the material I’m coming up with isn’t ringing your bells, what would?  I need examples of speakers and speeches that you feel would better engage your attention and intellect; don’t just trash what I’ve brought in without offering me ideas on what you would consider to be better choices.  What academically valuable works would you choose to read instead of the examples I’ve offered?  In other words, don’t tell me that you’d rather watch Oscar acceptance speeches or ESPN commentary – give me something challenging and meaningful that would help you to understand the lessons of the class; and make sure it’s something that wouldn’t put my job in jeopardy if my boss decided to observe our class while we worked with your suggestions.

Honestly, I was really jazzed and excited about today’s speeches – I thought that the Speer and Reagan speeches dovetailed nicely with one another, and that we could use each one to better understand the other (in sort of a “bring out your dead!” kind of way).  I was disappointed to see that many of you didn’t get that and, in an effort to improve my own teaching, I would really appreciate your thoughtful feedback on this.


Filed under concerns, Learning, Questions, Teaching

Grammar Wednesday

The “is this the right word?” edition.

Kizz sent me a list of words yesterday and asked for some clarification. She reads an awful lot, and I gather that some of what she reads is of indeterminate quality, so she finds herself questioning what she sees; she thinks it’s wrong, but she’s not confident enough in herself to know for certain.

The first one she asked about is the verb plead; is the past tense pleaded or pled? I was really glad she asked this one, because every time I watch Law & Order, I wonder about this because “pleaded” just doesn’t sound right to me. Of course, by the time I sit down to watch Law & Order, I’m too lazy to get off my ass to look it up, so this is a good opportunity for me to finally put this one to bed.

According to everything I’ve been able to find, both forms are perfectly acceptable. This answer is a little bit of a let-down for me; I was kind of hoping for a long, complicated discussion of formality and convention, but there you have it. Use whichever form sounds right to you.

When Kizz asked about plead, I instantly thought of the verb prove; is the correct form of the past tense proven (which sounds right to me) or proved (which really doesn’t)? Yet again, the answer is “yes.” Both forms are correct, and I couldn’t really find any evidence to say that one is any more correct than the other.

The next question was whether or not I could illuminate some distinction between the verbs want and desire. According to my favorite dictionary (the one I can’t lift when my back is acting up), there isn’t much distinction at all. In fact, the words are used to define one another:

want1. to feel a need or a desire for; wish for. 2. to wish, need, crave demand, or desire (often followed by the infinitive, as in “I want to see you.”)

desire – 1. to wish or long for; crave; want. 2. to express a wish to obtain; a longing or craving, as for something that brings satisfaction or enjoyment (I desire that you shall come here).

I may just be kidding myself, but there seems to be a slight flavor difference between the two – it may be that the definition for desire used the word “longing.” If I were making up an answer on the fly, I’d say that you can want something without a desire component, but not the other way around; however, that may be just my way of looking at the definitions.

The next question came about, I’m sure, as a result of something she’d read that she just knew wasn’t right. What’s the difference, she asked, between regimen and regiment? Regimen is a noun that means a regulated course of diet, exercise, or manner of living; a rule or government; or a prevailing system. Regiment, on the other hand, is most often used as a noun meaning a unit of ground forces; as a verb, it means to treat in a rigid, uniform manner.

I had two questions from last week’s Grammar Wednesday (thanks, ladies!); JuliaDream wanted to know if there’s a difference between dreamed and dreamt and Michelle was asking about adverb placement.

JuliaDream, your question came up quite a while ago – as a matter of fact, I think Kizz brought this one up too (Grammar Wednesdays likely wouldn’t exist without Kizz!). I did a little bit of digging and came up with this answer.

As far as the adverb placement goes, Michelle, I don’t really think it matters unless putting the adverb in a different place changes the meaning – implied or otherwise – of the sentence. For example:

We always see Susan at church.

We see Susan always at church.

While these sentences could be taken to mean the same thing, in the first, we may see Susan around town, but we know for sure we’ll see her in church. The implication in the second sentence is that Susan doesn’t leave church very often. At least, that’s how I interpret those structures*. I tend to put the adverb in different places to indicate emphasis or formality; in the sentences you offered:

Blah blah blah is the only museum solely dedicated to blah blah blah or

Blah Blah Blah is the only museum dedicated solely to blah blah blah

I’d put the second sentence in the catalogue for the museum. Both essentially convey the same ideas, but the second structure sounds more formal to me.

Thanks, Everyone! Keep those Grammar Wednesday questions coming!

(*you can’t see me over here cringing because I KNOW this one’s going to start something…)



Filed under Grammar


This absolutely thrills me!

I’m a little more impressed with than even I was before.  Not only did they respond to me, but they responded personally, thoughtfully, and promptly!  Check it out:

Dear Mrs. Chili,

Thank you for your compliments on our mission and also for your thoughtful feedback regarding the grammar in the Virginia Madsen ad.  We subscribe to Google Alerts, so we saw your blog entry on this subject as well.  Despite getting a bit of bad press on your blog, I actually think it’s great that you are such an energized and engaged contributor to the public dialogue on education.

I do know what you mean regarding the grammar in the ad.  At the time of that ad’s completion, we were working with an award-winning advertising agency that was responsible for writing the copy for all our ads.  We did question the sentence fragments during the proofing process, but the agency told us that it’s standard in the industry for ad copy not to follow the traditional rules of English grammar.  An example of this argument can be found here: 

As an English major myself, I admit to feeling annoyed at the erosion of good grammar and word usage perpetuated by pop culture, but the trend of casual copy-writing seems to be well established in the ad industry.  We decided to “trust the experts” on this one.

As for the “me’s”, I find that to be a tough call.  It was a direct quote from Virginia Madsen, so we had to find a way of putting it to paper.  The concern with writing simply “mes” is that people might have thought it should be pronounced “mess” and not know what to make of it.  While I realize this plural of me is neither possessive nor a contraction, there honestly did not seem to be another way to successful convey the quotation in writing.

Thank you again for getting in touch, and best of luck with your teaching.


Lauren McCollum
Editorial Director
10 East 40th St., Suite 1900
New York, New York  10016

Isn’t that GREAT?!  I mean, yes, the ad is still being run with the rotten grammar, but there’s something comforting to me in knowing that SOMEONE over there choked a bit on it before they put it out into the world.  Now, if we could just get people like Lauren to work in the ad companies, we’d be much better off trusting the experts.

Thanks, Lauren!  I very much appreciate that you took the time to answer, and that you did it in such a considered, thoughtful way.


Filed under about writing, admiration, success!