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Posts Tagged ‘basketball’

Response to “The Thunder is Playing Well”

The media criticism show On The Media recently aired a radio segment on grammar issues with certain NBA team names like The Heat and The Thunder. The show notes that unlike most other team names that allow the regular plural suffix (-s), these names are treated as mass nouns. Semantically speaking, all team names denote a plural group of players. But when it comes to subject-verb agreement, copyeditors and sportswriters are confused whether The Heat and The Thunder should be treated as grammatically singular or grammatically plural.

In other words, which is correct?

1. The Heat are playing well.

2. The Heat is playing well.

As the show starts us wondering about how to resolve this issue of usage, I couldn’t help to think about how many times my students have asked me to give them the rule about all sorts of similar issues. I’ve always felt like no matter how I answer them, I’m not satisfied.

Show guest and sportswriter Tom Scocca observes that in actual usage, publications vary in treating these names as both grammatically singular and plural. At the end of the piece Scocca takes a fairly nuanced position: there’s no fixed rule about which way to treat these team names. Instead, you have to examine them in the context of the sentence they appear and judge which sounds better. (Here it strikes me that investigating usage disputes based on the judgments of native speakers on a case-by-case basis is the same methodology used by linguists.)

In my experience, this sort of answer leaves many writing students unsatisfied. Most want fixed rules and definitive answers. They want the safety of a bright red line that can be drawn across all contexts, clearly separating the correct from the incorrect. This is the worldview inculcated by an educational system overtaken by multiple-choice tests. And this is the certainty that many handbooks provide: always place a comma before coordinating conjunctions. Only use “whom” in the following situations.

If only language were so tidy. Although these maxims may work in the prototypical contexts, when you examine the messiness of usage across many contexts, you’ll find countless irregularities and idiomatic exceptions, you’ll find that respected writers vary in their preferences, and you may even find that different usages often correspond to subtle differences in meaning or style. For instance, #1 above sounds more British, while #2 sounds more American. In addition, Brock Haussamen takes the position that in cases where the verb morphology and the plural/singular morphology of the subject don’t agree in the normal way, the speaker may be conveying a slight meaning difference.[1] According to this view, the plural morphology on the verb in #1 entails that the playing described by the verb is being performed by separate entities, whereas in #2, the singular morphology on the verb entails that the playing is being performed by a single entity.

It refreshes me to see that contemporary commentators on language and usage are growing more nuanced and enlightened. Scocca bases his opinions on corpus research into actual usage, and he avoids dogmatic prescriptivism. Yes, he does tease some writers for their “poncy” Anglicized usage, but it’s done in good humor. If this same topic were covered a decade or two ago, I’m sure we’d get a different take: the guest would have insisted that there’s one right way to do it, and that those who deviate betray their illiteracy and ignorance. Next, the piece would have concluded with a cliched rant about sloppiness of writers nowadays, the failure of our schools, and the impending decline of civilization. That are what I call progress!

Coaching the Perfect Jump-Shot, Teaching the Perfect Sentence

Recently, I went to the gym with a friend to shoot hoops. After he crushed me 21-to-0 in a game of one-on-one, we decided to shoot around for fun. He observed my form, and he offered to coach me to improve my jump-shot

“Start with your feet shoulder-width apart. Shoulders over toes.”

I looked down. Good. I shot. Clank, off the rim.

“You’re twisting your upper body to the left as you shoot. You’re jerking your head away from the ball. Keep it straight.”

I tried again. Clank. He shot me a disapproving look.

I realized then how much shooting a jump shot shares in common with writing an effective sentence: when things go well, many, many things need to synch up seamlessly, and we often don’t even notice. With a sentence, you need to execute skills of organization, reasoning, transitioning, parallelism, agreement, word choice, word endings, punctuation, etc. With a jump shot, each part of the body needs to be moving fluidly in synch. Your knees bend and spring. Your core explodes upwards. Your eyes focus on the basket. The shooting forearm swings forward. The wrist flicks with just the right amount of force to put slight backspin on the ball. Each motion contains infinite subtleties. Being slightly off with one can turn the shot into a brick, just as a brief lapse into clunky grammar can derail an otherwise excellent sentence.

“You need to be jumping straight up and down as you shoot.”

I shot again. As I landed, I noticed my body drifting to the left. Clank.

“Okay. Imagine drawing a line from the tip of each big toe to the top of your sternum. It forms a triangle. Now chop the triangle in half. It forms a line, running through the floor up through the center of your body. As you shoot, your body should move up and down along this line.”

I tried to visualize it, but I got lost trying to follow the imaginary geometry bisecting my body. I shot again. Clank.

“When you start, do you see how you’re holding the ball off to the right? Hold the ball directly over your head as you shoot. You’re holding it too far off to the right.”

“But I can’t get it there,” I protested. “My shoulder isn’t flexible enough.”

I shot again. Clank.

“You need your shooting arm to move in an axis straight towards the basket. It can’t be drifting to one side.”

I shot again. If I made it, maybe he’d back off. Clank.

“Try doing it again, but when you jump, try to land in the same place where you start.”

I shot again. In-and-out.

“Try to do a jump shot, but don’t jump. Just spring from your knees and hips, up and down, but keep your feet planted.”

I shot again. Airball.

As I was trying to process all the guidance, I grew more and more overwhelmed. The more I tried to focus on the technical details and the imaginary lines, the more I tensed up, the more my focus wandered, and the worse my shot became.

And then I wondered: is this how lots of students feel in the face of well-meaning but overly complex grammar instruction?

Just as grammar instruction posits all sorts of abstract structures that lace together the words we can actually see, my friend’s guidance depended on all this invisible geometry that underlies the mechanics of my jumpshot. To an expert who learned it an early age, the invisible stuff seems obvious and fundamental—and so necessary to improvement. But experts often forget how difficult it can be for the novice to visualize the invisible, let alone utilize it to improve their skills.

Teachers must acknowledge the limits to how much instruction any of us can process at once, especially when we ask students to grapple with the abstractions of grammar. After all, no matter how concrete they seem in handbooks, the phrases, and the clauses that comprise our sentences and the parts of speech are all abstractions, and most students will look at a sentence and only see the bare words themselves. It is difficult to move beginning students beyond this level of analysis. This is not to say that we cannot explicitly teach students how to analyze grammatical structures or improve their writing at the sentence level; it means that we face serious limits to how much we can hope to do. In our instruction, we need to be careful not to overwhelm students with more information than they can digest at one time, or more than what they can actually incorporate into their own writing.

We also need to acknowledge that students improve slowly. No basketball player goes from a bench-warmer to Jordanesque in three months. Nor can we expect a clunky writer to guild New Yorker caliber sentences in the course of a semester.

At the same time, huge chunks of the skills that go into crafting effective sentences (or executing a perfect jumpshot) cannot be explicitly taught. It’s infeasible. There’s not enough time in a semester. Effective coaches and teachers are targeted in their instruction. They break it into small pieces that are easy to digest. With writing, students require exposure to good examples and plenty of time for imitation and trial and error. The same goes for basketball. You can learn so much just by spending an hour in an empty gym goofing around with your form or scrimmaging with good players and copying their moves.