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The Meaning of a Word is its Use in the Language.

Oberon, Titania, and Puck with Fairies Dancing by William Blake (image from Wikipedia) Shakespeare is believe to have invented more than 1700 words by changing nouns to verbs, stitching roots together, and using context to clarify the meaning of wholly original creations. Blake once wrote: "I must create a system or be enslaved by another mans; I will not reason and compare: my business is to create."

Oberon, Titania, and Puck with Fairies Dancing by William Blake (image from Wikipedia)
Shakespeare is believed to have invented more than 1700 words by changing nouns to verbs, stitching roots together, and using context to clarify the meaning of wholly original creations.
Blake once wrote: “I must create a system or be enslaved by another mans; I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.”

Over at the Daily Beast, smart, Ivy League educated, professional writer Matt Collette discusses his failure to pass the new GED. The new GED, it turns out, has been privatized and made more difficult, apparently in an attempt (surprise, surprise) to increase the profits of the privatizing entity.

Part of the reason the GED is so hard is that it tests what you learn in high school, and most of what you learn in high school simply does not come up again in real life. Today I mostly use math to figure out the tip at a restaurant or divide bills among my roommates. And while I write for a living, I don’t often talk about specific verb tenses or perform close readings on 19th-century literature…

Other parts of the test I just disagreed with. I got a grammar question wrong because I put the title of a TV show in quotes, but didn’t also underline it. (Seriously, no one would write “Master Chef” like this, especially not underlined, yet that’s what the answer sheet on my practice test called for.) And while I, an adult writer working in the real world, can argue about something like that with my editor, there’s no back and forth with the test. Your answer is right or it’s wrong and there’s nothing you can do about it.

I never really understood standardized tests of grammar. It’s always seemed obvious to me that language is about communication. Since communication depends on context, how can you standardize it? And how can you then foist upon test-takers a standardized test of something which is essentially unstandardizable?

Indeed, facility with language is important for advancement in society. It seems to me that the best way to gain facility with language is to get out there and communicate – with different kinds of people, using different words, using different media. Forking over hard-earned cash to a for-profit testing company in order to be drilled on arbitrary and irrelevant “rules” does not seem like a good way to gain facility with language. In fact, we study the writers we do study in our English classes precisely because they transcended rules and found new ways to communicate (see caption to image above).

Yet, per Collette:

Nearly four hours into the test, I switched into science and social studies, 90-minute tests that covered things like photosynthesis and the Louisiana Purchase. These tests ultimately felt like more of an afterthought, which aligns pretty well with the Common Core, which stresses math and English over other disciplines. 

Using a standardized test of language as a checkpoint for allowing motivated people to progress in our world is a terrible idea. Assessing communicative ability is really what written applications and interviews are for. Tests of metaskills, like the ability to describe language in terms relevant to only grammarians and testing authorities, is the sort of arrant nonsense up with which we should not put.

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52 thoughts on “The Meaning of a Word is its Use in the Language.

  1. I’m skeptical that this author interpreted the test correctly to hold that the correct thing to do is both underline and put in quotation marks the title of a TV series. I mean, I’ll believe it if I see it. But I ain’t seen it yet.

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  2. “Tests of metaskills, like the ability to describe language in terms relevant to only grammarians and testing authorities, is the sort of arrant nonsense up with which we should not put.”

    I see what you did there.

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    • Took the words right outta my mouth.

      Man, I hated diagramming sentences back in the day. Always seemed so stupid, and a great way to take something that many people enjoy (reading/writing) and turn it into something they hate.

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      • contra that, the wife says that she sees a huge issue with some of her 101 students coming from most places nowadays that don’t diagram sentences, and more than a few have trouble identifying things like, well, verbs.

        you gotta mix mortar before you can build a wall and all that.

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      • When I went to college and took German, the new instructor was appalled that essentially none of the students had a sufficient grasp of the less common cases. IIRC — and it’s been a long, long time — her example was the classic “He the cow the hay over the fence threw.” In German, as long as you get the cases right, there’s no possibility of confusion. English requires some help (and a certain amount of guesswork) because we’ve dropped the signaling that German does with all the forms of “the”.

        In the elevator one day I dropped the casual comment that I hoped the Germans paid their articles well, since they made them do so much work. Mistake.

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  3. 1 – He also said that he tanked the reading comprehension portion.

    2 – He never supported his “feeling” that science and social studies were an afterthought. Likewise, he only made a circumstantial case that the GED was changed primarily for profit. I know that the old GED was not perceived as equivalent to a H.S. diploma, so it would make sense that the new version is harder.

    3 – There are arguments to be made for and against standardized grammar rules. They bore me, though.

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    • Permit me to clarify. I wasn’t complaining that your article was boring. I was just saying that it’s worth noting that both sides have legitimate arguments, but I’d trust others to take them up with more gusto than I would.

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      • I took a very narrow aspect of his description and qualified it. I believe that standardized tests of language do not indicate ability. There are other places to jump off from based on the scenario he describes. I’d love to hear a counterargument!

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  4. I largely agree with you here — “largely” because I think there does indeed have to be *some* rules he adhere to, so that I don’t get submissions that look like they were written by Prince — but am confused on one point:

    I am not understanding the profit angle here. Do you believe standardized tests administered by the government or non-profit companies do not ask similar kinds of questions?*

    *i don’t know if they do or not, to be honest. I took the ACT and the SAT in high school but couldn’t tell you you wrote the questions.

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    • I didn’t really understand that part either. Buried halfway down The Daily Beast piece is this:

      But the GED was being taken less and less seriously in the years before its overhaul. Colleges and employers didn’t see it as a reliable replacement for a high-school education, so it was becoming a less valuable credential for those who passed. Research by the GED Testing Service showed that people who passed the GED didn’t catch up with those with a high-school diploma until they went on to get some post-secondary degree or certification. The company’s spokesman, CT Turner, said the new test is a better indicator of high-school equivalence when it was tested on high-school seniors.

      Seems more accurate to say that the test was changed for policy reasons and some private company swooped in to make money off the change, so I think that the OP gets the causality a little off.

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    • I took the ACT and the SAT in high school but couldn’t tell you you wrote the questions.

      The writers of the questions are people who’ve done well on the tests, as far as I’m aware. I knew one of em (well, still know) and that’s what he mentioned to me. Also, fwiw, he was pretty much what you’d think: incredibly intelligent, very reserved and thoughtful, with an upper (maybe upperupper) middle class demeanor, mannerism and life experiences.

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  5. is the sort of arrant nonsense up with which we should not put.

    Awesome. I like the new verb construction “nonsense up”, btw. :)

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  6. Perhaps it’s the scientist in me, but having a solid understanding of the basic rules & structure of a language is a necessary prerequisite to being able to push the boundaries of that language while still having the ability to be understood. Otherwise you run the risk of producing gibberish.

    Now, IIRC, the GED is supposed to be the equivalent of an 8th grade education, and the HSED is a high school diploma. Still, I’m not surprised that he did poorly. He didn’t study. The specifics of what the test teaches are not fresh in his head. Things have likely changed in ways that he just isn’t current on. This is common. I remember helping my sister-in-law with her math homework some years back & spent a long time wondering what in the hell the teachers were trying to teach.

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  7. In fact, we study the writers we do study in our English classes precisely because they transcended rules and found new ways to communicate (see caption to image above).

    It’s a bit of a cliche that you have to know the rules to transcend them, as opposed to merely breaking them. For example, Picasso was an excellent draftsman, despite the fact that he’s best known for his more unconventional work. Here’s Allen Ginsberg talking about the technical aspects of his unconventional poetry. He says he doesn’t use classical techniques, but clearly he understands them.

    Now, maybe that cliche is a load of bull. If you can name some groundbreaking writers who did not know or could not adhere to the rules of the time, I’d be interested to know about them, but the fact that some of the most famous writers created new conventions doesn’t really show that it’s not important to understand existing conventions.

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    • Brandon,
      there are countless songwriters who haven’t ever learned how to write a note on a key.
      But the actual rules of music transcend time signatures and clefs.

      The writer isn’t skilled enough in linguistics to know what are “acceptable” variants of English, and what are not. [Long Time No See — a direct Chinese translation, works surprisingly well.] There are TONS of “sentences” that fail in English (VS is a standard mangling of an English sentence, and renders the whole thing totally incomprehensible on first glance).

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  8. There you go. I see Mad Rocket and Brandon have taken up the cause of grammar rules.

    I appreciate the rules the most when studying foreign languages. It helps to know exactly how you do something in English in order to either duplicate or restructure it in another language.

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  9. These tests ultimately felt like more of an afterthought, which aligns pretty well with the Common Core, which stresses math and English over other disciplines.

    This is an odd inclusion into the article since Common Core is pretty anti-standardized testing in the “check a box and if you get the right box you get credit” sense.

    It’s pretty much the case that if you can’t get the math and the language right you’re going to have problems with the higher-order learning disciplines that rely a lot on math and language. In that sense, an emphasis on math and language is probably to be expected. The “right” way to do this is probably inclusive, though.

    We recently toured one of the middle schools in our district (Jack’s about to go Middle, Open Enrollment is going on this month), and one of their history classes was “history of mathematics”. I took a history of math class in college as part of my major, and the teacher was doing an excellent job of combining relevant history with the math. Very well done course.

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    • I think the point was not that the new GED is similar to Common Core methodologically, but that it emphasizes the material that is included in the Common Core curriculum as implemented.

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  10. The OP example reminded me of my state’s driver’s test. They displayed a sign “Speed zone ahead” and you had a choice of answers. I answered “continue at same speed”. That was wrong as the correct answer was to slow down. I argued that there were signs in existence (there were) that said “reduced speed ahead” and that it was correct to slow down then, but not knowing if the speed was higher or lower from the first sign, you should remain at the same speed.

    I mean, WTF have a “reduced speed zone” sign if that’s the rule? Dumbasses.

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    • You know, I remember back back in my undergrad days trying to determine the intelligence level of the person writing the test to more correctly questions like that. “Is the question writer smart enough to know that a speed zone ahead sign imples that my speed hasn’t yet been restricted by law? Hmmm…”

      On the other hand, maybe they nonsense up those types of questions to punish logical thinking.

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    • Proof that context matters. If the multiple choice answers on a DMV written test are a) “continue at the same speed,” b) “speed up,” and c) “slow down,” the correct answer is presumptively going to be c). You can reach this presumption without reading the question first. The fact that you’re taking a written test at the DMV is all you need to know to select from that universe of possible answers.

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      • Except when they throw in curveballs, like where the sign is “curve ahead” and therefore answering “slow down” is wrong because the sign is a notification and not an instruction.

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      • There are signs around here that read:

        High Collision Location
        Strictly Enforced

        (a picture: http://mlkshk.com/p/U5IF)

        I just don’t know how to read that – does someone from the city go down there and deliberately crash into other vehicles if there haven’t been enough collisions toward the end of a reporting period (and if so, what is their fiscal year end? I want to avoid those intersections near the end of the quarter.) Are you only allowed to get in a collision if you’re high?

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  11. I might have misunderstood, but Collette appears to have taken a GED practice test, produced by a company that stipulates in a disclaimer that “ACE and GED Testing Service LLC have not approved, authorized, endorsed, been involved in the development of, or licensed the substantive content of this material.”

    Practice tests are a huge racket, one in which I’ve made a living for the past ten years. Practice material for standardized tests range from extremely close simulations of the actual thing (i.e., useful for practice) to cheaply-produced wastes of time that have only the barest passing resemblance to the test the poor student will eventually bomb. The worst practice test material is written by the kind of frustrated editor-dictator who invents practices like underline-and-quote titles. I’m wondering whether Collette took anything like the actual GED—the practice test he took may have literally been impossible to pass, because the correct answers exist only in the test-creators’ heads.

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  12. Grammar is
    1. Easy to evaluate
    2. Relatively apolitical

    It’s easy to see why they’d want to include those types of questions. (I don’t approve of it, but that’s the reason.)

    Regarding the difficulty, I’m not sure why we should set the upper limit of difficulty for the GED to be what an Ivy League graduate who hasn’t studied anything within the last decade. The GED should test what someone should know having prepared to study for it, not what someone who graduated high school a long time ago can still remember.

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  13. I really, really disagree with this:

    “I never really understood standardized tests of grammar. It’s always seemed obvious to me that language is about communication. Since communication depends on context, how can you standardize it?”

    I write work instructions for my company. We standardize the language in all of them (we had a 30 minute conversation once about whether to use ‘click’ or ‘select’ to describe a software function). Language does matter…a lot. For example, my youngest daughter has trouble with here vs there. She will be sitting in our kitchen and say, “My teacher wasn’t here today.” Rules of grammar are what we then use to explain why she should have chosen there.

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    • LOL. There was once a very well worded complaint to Tyson on the subject of instructions…
      Turns out Someone had taken “put a cup of water” into their chicken rather literally. It was a plastic cup, you see…

      The new instructions say “pour”.

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  14. And while I write for a living, I don’t often talk about specific verb tenses or perform close readings on 19th-century literature…

    And yet, being a person who lives in a country with a primary language other than that of his birth, I find it very useful to be able to reason in terms of verb tenses, etc.

    Also, strangely, Dutch has a lot of cognates with a more archaic style of English (knowing how whereby, hereto, etc., work is *very* helpful), so having some knowledge of older writing styles and language also helps a great deal.

    And anyway, without know grammar, how is one supposed to explain why verbing weirds nouns?

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