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TED Talks Grammar

posted: 10.28.14 by Steve Bernhardt

My friend and colleague, Barb Lutz, who directs the Writing Center at the University of Delaware , recently linked a Facebook post to TED Ed: Lessons Worth Sharing. A subset of lessons on grammar and usage are worth a look. TED-Ed brings together the volunteered work of educators and professional animators to create short (3 to 5 minute) lessons on a variety of subjects. The results are quite professional: brisk scripts, clever animations, high quality voice-over narration.

Is there any interest in short video lessons on grammar? Well, the lesson on the ever-contentious Oxford Comma certainly suggests so, with over 230,000 views, inflated only slightly by my watching twice. It’s a very sharp presentation, with clarifying examples and explanations that show why the choice of whether or not to use a final comma in a series is such a tricky issue. Other topics have generated hundreds of thousands of views, too.

I am not quite as enamored of a lesson on the use of the words good and bad. The broad message is to avoid commonplace (and presumably empty) words like good and bad in favor of more specific terms. Good lesson? I tend to think word choice is trickier than simple prescriptions would suggest. But you be the judge. It’s still a well-designed and executed lesson that I am sure that many teachers would find useful.

Another lesson takes on a more complicated subject: deciding how to place commas with coordinate and subordinate clauses within sentences. I see problems with this lesson. Some important grammatical distinctions are elided: what is a clause and what is a sentence? What is a conjunction? Can you contrast conjunction (referring to coordinating conjunctions) with subordinate (referring to subordinating conjunctions)? Not in the terminological system I learned. The lesson suggests graphically and metaphorically that conjunctions do light lifting or balancing while subordinates do the heavy lifting. This lesson makes me wonder if a short animation can do justice to the complexities of punctuation by clause structure. Again, check out the video and see if the simplification of complex syntactic matters is adequately addressed by the lesson.

 I don’t want to be too negative. A lesson on plagiarism is quite good (there’s that word). It’s memorable, clarifying, and a fine starting point for a more nuanced discussion in a writing classroom. There are quite a few lessons that offer perspectives on the English language, some generated by noted linguists, and these lessons could stimulate interest among students in broad issues of how language works. I hope to see new, useful lessons on writing, usage, word choice, and other topics that we all care about. Ted Ed is not a bad start. Perhaps you might author a lesson that demonstrates the full power of the medium?

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