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Warning: Your Usage May Vary

posted: 3.20.09 by Traci Gardner

Garment Warning TagWhen I read the tag attached to a new flannel shirt, I thought about student texts that needed a similar tag. It would read something like this:

A note about this text
The differences in spelling or word choice, the appearance of unusual sentence structure or grammatical constructions are all part of the natural beauty of language. These linguistic characteristics are an important part of the style and enhance the beauty of this text. These VARIATIONS are not considered defective.

In a world that expects standardization, it’s hard to explain that language has few absolutes. Most writing teachers know that language use comes with color, shading, and finish that to a purist seem like errors.

The regional, cultural, and social variations we read in student texts, like the “fabric slubs and gentle wrinkles” of my new shirt, are all “part of the natural beauty” of the final products that we see.

The challenge in the classroom is helping students identify the times when the variations don’t fit the overall fabric of the text. We accept a few wrinkles in a journal entry or email message, but we generally expect the formal essays students turn in to be more polished. Here’s one way to show them:

  1. Share the garment tag and the analogy to language.
  2. Brainstorm other items that might come with a tag. Furniture with an aged finish might have a similar explanatory note, for instance.
  3. Talk about usage, style, and dialect. Be sure to talk about how audience and purpose affect language choices.
  4. Ask students to choose a piece of everyday writing—an email message to friends or a blog entry will do. They need to choose something at least 250–500 words long. For instance, a single Facebook status message won’t work, but all the updates posted during a day or two would be fine. They should avoid polished pieces in standard written English for this activity.
  5. Have students annotate their writing, pointing out the “variations” in what they write and labeling them with a few words of explanation or details on the source of the usage (e.g., fraternity jargon, family usage, Spanish phrase).
  6. Share the annotations and discuss whether the passages they mark are “variations [that] are not considered defective.”
  7. Once students get the idea, they can turn to other texts they have written and try the same test:
    1. Look for words and phrases that don’t match the rest of the text.
    2. Identify their source.
    3. Decide whether the variations are fit for the purpose, audience and style of the text.
    4. If not, revise the passages.

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Categories: Assignment Idea, Grammar & Style
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