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Hey Nineteen

This post is not about Cuervo Gold and fine Colombian (although I could easily write one).

I bought Aretha Franklin’s “30 Greatest Hits” this week. It’s a 2-CD set that includes my two favorite Franklin songs, “Chain of Fools” and her cover of the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby.”

Much as I like her music, though, whenever I think of Aretha, the first thing I think of is the Steely Dan song “Hey Nineteen”:"

Hey Nineteen
That's 'Retha Franklin
She don't remember
The Queen of Soul
It's hard times befallen
The sole survivors
She thinks I'm crazy
But I'm just growing old

Most of my students are 18 or 19 each academic year, but I grow older when every semester starts. Before, my occasionally irreverent approach to the course material—I won’t go as far as saying “crazy”—helped keep students alert yet relaxed. This made it easier to “sell” the importance of using our language like a scalpel, or at the least as a knife, a chisel, a planer, a rasp—tools to shape meaning.

No we got nothing in common
No we can't talk at all

Too many of my students today, though, don’t understand the importance of these tools. Almost all of them say their writing in high school was graded on ideas, not mechanics. It shows. At the start of the semester, they have trouble identifying subjects and predicates. They are lost when asked to identify adjectives and adverbs, much less propositional phrases. Paragraphing? A lost art. Punctuation? Egads.

There are always exceptions, but high school teachers’ failure to teach students how to use scalpels and rasps means many of today’s students have never faced consequences for their abuse or non-use. Lackadaisical language has never harmed their ability to convey a message, either, because their vernacular’s use is growing. Even when I tell them that who knows how many internship supervisors, HR managers, and communication professionals have told me how important good writing skills are in any profession worth working in, the reaction is a collective shrug.

Just so the language part of my brain doesn’t come across as ossified, I understand that language is organic. When I was growing up, “suck” was a naughty word. The word “piss” was a naughty word. “Gay” meant “happy.” A couple of generations from now, the two-word version of “all right” probably will seem quaint. This is all good—the fact that English is a living language, not a dead one. However, I still am annoyed by the use of “like” as an attributive verb, and by uptalk and its assault on the question mark.

My gripe is that no matter how the language grows or shrinks, it still needs to be used carefully for maximum impact. For someone who loves the language, uses it as best he can, and loves working with students who want to learn how to use it better, these are indeed “hard times for the soul survivors.” I’m thankful that music like Aretha’s can help pull me through until I walk out of the classroom for the final time in May.

OMG I’m, like, tired of swimming upstream?


( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
Dec. 15th, 2015 12:40 am (UTC)
Word. (ha ha)
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )

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