A favourite pastime of English professors is complaining about students’ writing. It’s irresistible, really. The more confident we become with our own prose style and the more we teach others about good writing, the more we forget what it was like to struggle with the difference between its and it’s. We are fully confident that the active voice is often preferable to the passive and that “past experience” is a phrase up with which we cannot put. But we forget that there was a time we did not always know these things. It is sobering to revisit one’s old undergrad papers and see how many of the mistakes we now fume about were the same ones we were making years ago.
Thus, every once in a while, I see a news or opinion piece about how badly students write these days — as though there once was a magical time when to barbarously split an infinitive was unknown — and I have to smile a little. This is a war that will never be won because it is really a war against our younger selves, and it is one that I am increasingly uninterested in fighting.
Not that I don’t still value and teach good writing. Rather, I am less and less interested in chasing students away from what I will call wrongs. By wrongs, I don’t mean obvious errors like writing “loose” when one means “lose.” I mean those usages that are common in English but condemned, sometimes arbitrarily, as being wrong. Such wrongs become the black beasts of writers who see a sentence beginning with “hopefully” and charge off on a quest to vanquish the demon called Misplaced Modifier.
Consider the case of “alot.” My colleague Jacob Serebrin gives the spelling “alot” (one word) as an example of the kinds of mistakes which must be drilled into (or rather out of) students’ minds at a young age. One web site calls the spelling “illiterate” if not “retarded.” Another conjures a whimsical beast called the “Alot” to help you avoid the wrong. But is there really anything so deplorable about “alot”?
The obvious concern is that “alot” is spelled as one word when it should be two. But then why do we allow “always” and “cannot” which, we cannot help but notice, have already been used in this very entry and used to be two words, just like “already”? If we have the wherewithal to turn other phrases into single words, we could do the same with “a lot.”
After all, “a lot” in the sense of “I have a lot of reading to do” does not use “lot” in the sense of a parcel of land (to build a house on a lot), or fate (my lot in life) or any other independent sense of “lot.” The phrase itself “a lot” means “a large amount” and we think of the two syllables as one unit of meaning. And because the phrase is so short, we sometimes imagine it as one word, just as “some times” became “sometimes.” And there is no real danger of confusing “alot” with “allot” (which means “portion out”) because context will make the meaning clear (“We must allot the remaining licenses, but before we do there’s alot of paperwork to be done.) You see, there’s really not alot to be upset about.
Rather than teaching such things as wrongs, I am increasingly teaching them as contested usages. For instance, I personally prefer that phrases with “none” be treated as a singular (as in “None of my students pays attention”) but alot of people disagree and I am not always consistent even in my own writing.
Teaching such usages this way allows students to see that languages really are living entities inasmuch as they grow and change and develop. Today it seems like an error to spell a phrase like a word, but that same word may be accepted tomorrow, nevertheless. Of course, there is a value to following standards, but we should be clear to students and to ourselves that when we say students can’t write, one of the things we really mean is that they have not yet mastered standard usage.
To do that is to descend from our highhorses and really talk about what words are and how they work. We will give students a fuller understanding of English, and students can stop feeling stupid over their many wrongs. Wrongs sometimes do make rights, English professors notwithstanding.