Courtney Langton

Courtney is an aspiring high school teacher. Her teachables are History and English, but she's happy to teach anything that doesn't involve numbers or formulas. Her particular interest is in promoting gender equity and anti-oppression both in and outside the classroom. She writes a detailed To-Do list every morning, and enjoys nothing more than a good book and a plate of bacon on a rainy Saturday.

Jonathan Wong

Jonathan's primary interest is moral education. His teachable subjects are English and Music. He encourages critical thinking and hopes to teach his students to recognize, and strive for, what is truly important to them without forgetting to be compassionate, tolerant, and open-minded along the way. He likes making analogies and his favourite is one that compares life to jumping on a trampoline.

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The Ins and Outs of Our Subjects
Sunday, November 22, 2009

We talked in class the other day about breaking down English sentences to their constituent parts (i.e. subject, predicate, etc... basically grammar stuff) and how practically every sentence in the English language is built the same way. It was actually pretty cool. I won't get into the details of it here because it's long, complicated, and took us 2 classes to fully understand, but suffice to say, it was informative, to say the least.

Somebody put their hand up in class and asked about why it's important for us to know about how our sentence structure breaks down since realistically, no one's ever going to walk up to you and insist that you explain to them where you draw the line between a subject and the predicate. I thought I'd write a bit about my take on the matter.

Kate (see: awesome vocal teacher) likened English grammar to Music theory. And in a lot of ways, I think it's a very apt comparison. We study music theory because we understand that there are certain ways we hear sound and there are certain tendencies we expect when we hear music. Music theory helps you understand that there's a reason why a 4th scale degree almost always wants to move down to a 3rd scale degree; why a II chord almost always resolves to a V chord; why parallel fifths tend to make people with any kind of music sensitivity cringe. In the same way, English grammar helps you understand why almost every sentence in the English language is constructed using a fairly consistent way. In a lot of ways, we don't even realize that we've been conditioned to do all this. But if someone were to construct a sentence in a convoluted way, we notice it because it doesn't conform to what we've come to expect from every sentence ever constructed.

On some level, it's an elitist way of thinking. I once went on a long rant about how the song Fireflies by Owl City irks me SO much because they don't resolve their chords properly. For those of you who are interested/those of you who understand music theory, there is a leading tone - a LEADING tone of all things! - that resolves DOWN to the 6th instead of up to the 8ve. It makes me cringe just to hear it. But I've spoken to a variety of other people (non-music people), who don't seem to be bothered by it. And I always have to resist the urge to respond in some sarcastic, elitist fashion about how they're the reason why so much garbage is churned out by popular radio on a daily basis at the expense of my poor ears.

So you may be asking, is it really problematic if it only bothers those who have studied the subject? Well, the response I give to English teachers is this: music notes that don't resolve are similar to people making spelling errors. And lo and behold, suddenly, it's not something to scoff at anymore. English students tend to get highly annoyed by spelling/grammar errors, even if those errors don't detract from our overall ability to understand the message being conveyed. Why? Because English students understand that there are certain rules we're simply supposed to follow when we USE the English language. As a principle, you're supposed to spell your words correctly. That's a given right? Well, the same thing applies to tonal tendencies.

On top of everything, if you STUDY the subject, very often, you'll realize that there's a REASON why we do things a certain way. Resolving notes isn't simply an arbitrary process; neither is sentence construction. They almost always make our lives easier, whether it is psychologically, or practically. You might not think so when you're actually forcing yourself to apply these rules, but the rules are there to make things easier for you, not harder. Without these rules, you wouldn't even be able to read what I'm writing; nor could I be expected to write in such a way that you would understand.

In a lot of ways, it speaks to our fundamental tendency to connect with other human beings. We put systems in place so that we have a common ground off which we can build mutual understanding. Because if you didn't care about other people understanding what you say, sure, you can invent your own grammar and sentence structure if it makes life easier for you. And maybe, if you really wanted, you could teach other people your own rules. But eventually, your ability to touch others stops; your own personal influence can only carry you so far before you need your product (be it music, words, writing, whatnot) to speak for itself.

And for the records, I guarantee you that Owl City, despite being hugely popular now, will not be a band that people will look back upon when they think "the turn of the decade". There's just no way. Not if they don't resolve their chords.

For the record, I actually really like the Owl City album. Garbage lyrics and non-resolved-chords be damned.

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Jonathan posted at 9:05 PM - Comments (1)


Thank you Jon! This is very well put and I have to say I agree 100%. Though I would compare something like a 7th "resolving" down to a 6th to a person using the "there is" when they should be using "there are". Mind you, I am horrible at spelling so I suppose spelling errors don't get to me in the same way they do other English teachers.

By Blogger Ashley, at November 23, 2009 at 10:31 PM  

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