Sunday, June 05, 2005

Grammar Query

Okay, my hand-selected panel of experts...

I was taught "the New Grammar" (to go along with the New Math) at my elementary school. We didn't have verbs or nouns or adjectives, we had "Class I" or "Class II" or Class III" words. The effect of this is that while I have a pretty fair seat-of-my-pants grasp of grammatical rules, I often cannot explain in terms comprehensible to people who are not Me, why I believe something is right.

Which leads me to my current project, preparing a Letter of Intent to pply for a grant for YG's elementary school. This is a fabulous school--everyone should immediately send it money. They educate some of the poorest kids in the city, 80% of them from immigrant families, and over half of whom arrive there speaking little or no English, and they do a superlative job. Honest. And because, of course, if you do things right with barely enough money, the Authorities figure you can keep on doing things right with even less money (!!) we are forced to support the arts program with foundation money and whatever sorts of fundraising we can do. (This is why I am the Boxtops4Education Goddess at the school....)

So, I wrote a sentence that went, "Despite the fact that our population is an historically low-achieving group, Moscone students continue to excel academically." Two teachers at the school, offering comments and changes on the Letter, said I should remove the N and make it "a historically low-achieving." Is this correct? It looks bad to my eye, and sounds worse, but in the end it's their proposal, I am merely a humble instrument. I'd just like to be able to explain why I think it's wrong using something other than "Class I" words.


Blogger Jonquil said...

::thwaps you across the head with Fowler::

Rule one of the working writer: if it confuses you, it'll confuse somebody else. Rephrase it.

"An historic" is what you use if you're British, mostly. But it's one of those bugbears that everybody has a strong opinion about, and everybody has a different opinion about.

Despite the fact that our population has historically shown low achievement, Moscone students...

6:55 PM  
Blogger claire said...

"Despite the fact that our population is a historically low-achieving group".

Take the "n" out. It is a singular thing. The group is a unit.

Mind you, I lost points in college because I couldn't spell medieval or Britain. I are a editor...


7:49 PM  
Anonymous L.N. Hammer said...

Either is correct. It depends mainly on how you pronounce "historically" in your dialect/idiolect. If you asperate the h, then no n; if it's barely a whisper, n it goes.

Or maybe the determinant should be whether your audience asperates it.


8:23 PM  
Blogger Madeleine Robins said...

Interesting. I would never say "An history," which sounds precious to my ear. However, "a historic" seems to require a weird glottal jump...this may be more of a theatre-geek thing than a grammatical thing. I don't think anyone is confused by the phrase, just that we have differing opinions about this small grammatical twitch.

The phrase itself is much beloved by educators. The "historically low-achieving population," by the way, doesn't mean the school's population per se--it's refering to the achievement gap between the Hispanic and other groups in the state (and YG's school is 52% Hispanic).

I'm not getting exercised about it. As far as I'm concerned, I'm a subcontractor (unpaid!) and if "A" is what the customer wants, it's cool by me.

8:47 PM  
Blogger Jonquil said...

I used "confuse", and it was the wrong word. What I should have said was "make you stop to think". When I bump into something like "comprise" in print, I always stop and try to figure out if the author's gotten it right, because that's one I always screw up. I therefore avoid it in my own writing, because I know it throws me, the reader, out even when done correctly.

9:22 PM  
Blogger Madeleine Robins said...

I often have to spell and respell "receive" because I often spell it correctly, remember I that it's a problem word for me, and go back and "fix" it wrong...

11:07 PM  
Blogger C. F. Blog said...

Grammar and I are not that close and Math and (me) are only friends with a calculator. But, in looking at the two sentences and since the teachers want the "n" taken out I suggest to do what they say. Just remember even though you’re a “published writer” they just like using the red pen.

7:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dave Smeds sez:

Larry Hammer is correct; it depends on whether one pronounces the "h" aloud. However, then the question becomes, is the "h" silent in "historically"? My stance is that the "h" is always pronounced, hence it is always incorrect to use "an" in front of the word.

"An" comes before words beginning in vowel sounds, so there are several "h" words that take it, like honor, heir, heirloom, herb, and honest. But not history or historical. Many educated people get this wrong -- in fact, this is one of those cases where educated people probably get it wrong more than ignorant people.

5:29 PM  
Blogger Madeleine Robins said...

I think I tend to pronounce the H in "historically" so softly as to virtually negate it, which is why I feel awkward saying "a historically"--it requires a start/stop while I remember to hit the H harder than I normally do. I stand by my need to use "an," at the same time noting that this may be my acting/speech training (not all of which took--I refuse to pronounce the T in "often", which sounds forced to me, even when other actors use it). When I say "an" before "historically" it's probably there to make what I'm saying clearer to a listener.

Either that, or my childhood Anglophilia breaking out again.

7:48 AM  

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