English teachers teach Steinberg a verb or two after chronicling Chicago schools’ COVID standoff
When I was in third grade, Ms. Nemeth handed out a mimeographed worksheet listing the sentences the students were to judge as “possible” or “impossible.”
One was “a pig with a bushy tail”. I checked “possible” and she marked it incorrectly.
It offended me to the core of my 8-year-old soul, and the next day I walked into class with my giant biology guest book and showed Mrs. Nemeth the page on the parts of the body of the salamander grafted on top of each other. If the leg of a large salamander could be attached to the body of a small salamander, I blew, didn’t I? possibleHow could a fox’s bushy tail be grafted onto a pig?
I think she hated me after that.
Correction by students – rightly or wrongly – is one of the countless challenges of the teaching profession.
When I was preparing my mock English lesson for Wednesday’s paper, analyzing Lori Lightfoot’s very schoolmarmish “You’re Not Listening!” (really, our mayor has more cliches than a onesie) and while surfing grammar websites it occurred to me that I was overwhelmed and should get an English teacher to check my work.
But I was pretty confident – still dangerous – so I shrugged my shoulders and decided, if I was wrong, well, someone would correct me. And besides, wouldn’t being wrong add a layer of verisimilitude to my presentation in class? A sneaky search.
The consequences began to be felt. Meet Peg Cain, who taught literature for 20 years at Nazareth Academy in La Grange Park:
“Listen”, of course, is a compound verb. “To listen” is not, in this case, a gerund, but the present participle of the verb. … “Not to listen”, therefore, cannot be a nominative predicate because “to listen” is not a noun in this sentence. “No” is only an adverb, which drags…
So not a gerund but… a present participle?
Jeanne Parker, who taught English at Palatine Township High School before I was born, joined:
In the sentence “you are not listening”, to listen is indeed a verb; you’re the contraction, contains the subject you as well as the verb are, which is however NOT the main verb but rather an auxiliary verb, making are listen the main verb phrase, NOT a nominative predicate.
So… a main verb phrase?
From Jon Teich:
The subject would be “YOU”; the verb would be a present progressive “ARE LISTENING” modified by the adverb “NOT”,… There would be no nominative predicate in this case. Treating “NOT LISTEN” as a nominative predicate would mean “YOU” = “NOT LISTEN”, which may have been your intention.
So… present progressive?
There were more. But you get the idea. Answering emails from English teachers all day might not sound like fun, but it actually was.
Why? The teachers were – with one exception – extraordinarily nice, without any of the “Hey idiot!” joy that mistakes often evoke. Many have confessed to liking the column, despite this blunder.
I was accused of making the mistake on purpose, and I had to wonder if, on some subconscious level, I might have been lax to provoke a reaction. It gets so quiet. People can read for years and never say a word unless I’m wrong. It attracts them.
At a time when certainties are crumbling, democracy is wavering and the pandemic is raging, it is comforting to note that an obscure point of grammar is still important for many. Again, that’s what teachers do. They sweat the details – battle dates, mathematical formulas, grammatical niceties – and explain them, or try to, to careless idiots like me.
The comments reminded me of all the English teachers I had the good fortune to know: Mr. Garman and Bonnie Brown, Miss Jones and Miss Kovach, who took a class in 1973 reading “Leiningen Versus the Ants,” aloud, perhaps the highlight of my educational experience.
Oh, I finally managed to get out of it and figure out exactly what “listening” is in the phrase “You’re not listening”, by doing what I should have done in the beginning: turning to a competent authority, Carol Saller, editor of “The Chicago Manual of Style”, author of “The Subversive Copy Editor”. My first responder, Peg Cain, was right.
“Listening” is a present participle in the present progressive (“are listening”). To be a gerund, “listen” should work as a noun (“listening is fun” or “hearing is not listening”). Here it is just part of a verb.
The Sun-Times regrets the error.