Saturday, February 20, 2016

Language Learning

I can't remember where we were when Benjamin picked up a copy of Where the Wild Things Are but we were probably at the elementary school. Maybe in Miriam's classroom. I'm pretty sure that's where. I know it wasn't at the library, still Benjamin asked if he could check it out anyway. I explained to him that we couldn't check it out because (a) we weren't at the library and (b) we have it at home anyway so even if we could borrow it (sometimes Miriam's teacher lets us borrow books) there wouldn't be much point since we own a copy ourselves.

"Can we read it at home?" he asked.

He's really big on commitment patterns lately and asks me to commit to everything from the obvious ("Can I eat breakfast in the morning?") to the foreseeable future ("Can we get this for my birthday?") to undefined moments in time ("Can we have animal crackers one day?").

Side story:

Ben woke me up on Friday morning saying, "It's one day, Mom!"

"Mmmmhmmm," I agreed sleepily.

"So?" he said expectantly, grinning from ear to ear.

"So...?" I repeated.

"One day," he said emphatically. "It's one day!"

"Is that significant?" I asked.

"Animal crackers," he hinted.

"Right. Yes. Okay. Today can be the day we eat animal crackers."

Anyway, as my little side story demonstrated, I can be a total pushover. So of course I said yes.

"Yes, we can read that book at home, Benjamin."

However, as my little side story also demonstrated, I can also be a little absentminded when it comes to all the commitments I'm forced to make and I forgot about reading that story to Benjamin.

Luckily we're at home a lot and when he remembered, days later, that I'd promised to read that book to him at home we happened to be at home...with the book. How handy!

"Mom, you said you would read me that monster book at home!" he reminded me while I was helping him into his pyjamas.

"That's right!" I said. "Let's see if we can find it and we can read it for story time."

Unfortunately (and also fortunately) we've amassed a large collection of children's books the past few years—having a home library is important for literacy (and overall education)—and they're arranged rather haphazardly (enough to make any librarian weep), with the most important criteria being the size of the book. Basically, if it fits on the shelf, that's where it goes, so in order to find the book you're looking for you have to think about the size of the book and then think about which shelf someone would stick that size of book. I do my best to keep sets together (all the Seuss books, all the Origami Yoda books, all the Junie B books, all the board books, and so forth) but it's a losing battle. Books fly off the shelf at our house (both to be read and also for the sake of pulling books off the shelf (one of Zoë's favourite pastimes)).

Where the Wild Things Are is a pretty big book, so I skipped the narrow bookshelf, filled mostly with standard-sized novels and board books, and started perusing through the deeper shelves, but I couldn't find the book anywhere, so I called, "Does anyone know where Where the Wild Things Are is?"

We all got a kick out of that sentence. It's not very complicated syntactically (because the entire phrase "Where the Wild Things Are" acts as one noun) but my brain still breaks a little when it tries to parse it.

The next day at dinner Rachel told us that her teacher has a sign in her office that says, "I'm silently correcting your grammar in my head," and admitted that she does this sometimes because she finds poor grammar infuriating.

Then she told us that her music teacher was coordinating things for their musical and said, "I want you two to swap places with them two."

"Them two!" Rachel cringed. "Can you even believe she said that?!"

Now, I admit to having a few pet peeves when it comes to grammar but mostly in my heart of hearts I'm a descriptivist about language, not a prescriptivist. So instead of thinking, "They said that wrong!" (and I still think that often enough), I will think, "Interesting. I wonder why they said it that way."

So I said, "Actually, if you take out the 'two,' it sounds correct, doesn't it? I want you to swap places with them. That's because, in this sentence, 'them two' is acting as an object. Any pronoun you put there would be in objective case, so them, her, him, you, me. Them is correct."

"Mom," Rachel said, rolling her eyes. "You just said, 'Them is correct.' Should you really be teaching me about grammar?"

"I was using 'them' as a singular noun, short for, 'the word them.' Because word is singular—and because 'them' is one word I am talking about—then it can be followed by a singular noun."

"But you just said 'them' couldn't be the subject of a sentence because it's an object," she pointed out.

"Right. Them can't be the subject of a sentence if them refers to people but if them is 'the concept of them' then it can be a subject. So if 'them two' was the subject of your sentence—as in: Them two rode their bikes to school—that wouldn't be correct. But if I say 'Them is spelled T-H-E-M," then it can be a subject."

We spent the rest of dinner discussing rules of proximity versus number when choosing singular/plural verbs and other crazy things like that. Rules are important for communication, but language is a fluid, fickle creature so no rule should be set in stone. Sometimes to really communicate what you want to say you need to break a few rules...but I suppose in order to break the rules you need to know the rules.

And as an eight-year-old she still has a lot of language rules to nail down before she can be inducted as an official grammar nazi.

On a related note, Benjamin and Miriam were playing school this morning and Miriam was trying to teach him how to spell his whole name, rather than taking the short route and writing BEN. But she taught him how to make his Js backwards! It was so cute (and comical) when they came out to show off their error-ridden handiwork. She taught him so good!

On another related note, I was talking to my friend Annie about her preschool plans for next year. She runs a preschool in her home and was Miriam's teacher last year. Benjamin has been talking about going to Miss Annie's preschool all school year. So I figured I should talk to her about it. And then we got to talking about how our third children—Benjamin and Oliver (the infamous duo known to their older siblings as Oliben)—have absolutely no interest in learning anything about...anything.

"My girls really wanted to know the alphabet and how to write their names and how to read," I said. "Benjamin just doesn't have that drive."

He overheard me say this and said, "Aw," as if he was jealous that he didn't have that same desire.

"Watch this," I said and then called out, "Hey, Benjamin! How do you spell your name?"

"ABCD-bee-boh-boop!" he answered.

Annie nodded knowingly.

"That's Ollie," she said.

And in a few minutes Ollie presented her the perfect opportunity to showcase his own irreverence for the alphabet. He picked up a stick shaped like a T and held it up.

"This looks like a letter!" he said triumphantly.

"It does!" Annie agreed. "And what letter does it look like?"

Oliver shrugged his shoulders, hummed to the tune of "I dunno," and chucked the stick over his shoulder before running off after his buddies.

"See?" Annie said. "I know exactly what you mean."

Maybe, with the help of school-teacher Miriam, grammar-nazi Rachel, and Miss Annie, I'll be able to whip Benjamin into shape in time for kindergarten. I have a year and a half to have him ready....


  1. Commitment story: they are working on making some changes to the computer system in the library. The project has been underway for at least a year or longer. So Bonnie says when people ask about how soon the system will be ready, she says, "Oh, in a month." Then when they say, "I thought you said it would be ready in a month!" she says, "I DID say it would be ready in a month. But I didn't say which month! It Will be ready in A MONTH. Maybe March, maybe April, maybe June...but it will be a month!"

  2. I read this post about an hour ago. Then chuckled when I saw this post and this tweet. :)