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English

A self-described mediocre student, Kristen Dearborn almost didn't make it to college.

Kristen Dearborn, 2016 Barnard Scholar

In the spring of 2013, a string of her college applications had been rejected. By her own admission, she was not a very good student in high school – her report cards reflecting an “alphabet soup” of grades. “I just didn’t like school very much,” she said.

And when she finally received an acceptance letter – from Southern Connecticut State University — it was conditional. She would need to pass two courses with a grade of “C” or better during the summer between her senior year at Sheehan High School and the fall semester at SCSU – a testing ground known as the “Proof of Ability” program.

The program is designed for students who show signs of academic promise, despite inconsistencies in their grades. Dearborn had started showing improvement in her grades during her junior and senior years of high school, spurring admissions counselors to give her a second look. She took up the Proof of Ability challenge in earnest.

“I wanted to prove to myself I could do it,” Dearborn said. “Those two classes were intense for me.”

Despite the pressure, she passed those courses – a writing composition and a communications class — with flying colors. She would be allowed to enroll for the fall.

“I was so elated,” she said. “I said to myself, ‘I’m doing this. I’m moving in.’”

Not only did she set her sights on a college degree, but she sought to graduate in three years – a full year earlier than the traditional four-year path. Her plan was to take classes during summer and winter sessions, in addition to full course loads during the fall and spring semesters.

And right on schedule, on May 20, Dearborn will be receiving her diploma – a Bachelor of Arts degree in English — after three years of classes. The SCSU Undergraduate Commencement ceremony will be held at the Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport, starting with the procession at 10:15 a.m.

Dearborn proved to be a model student. She earned the prestigious Henry Barnard Distinguished Student Award – which honors four SCSU seniors each year for outstanding academic achievement and community service. She attained a 3.7 GPA, in addition to having served as vice president of Sigma Tau Delta (English Honor Society) and a member of the Zeta Delta Epsilon Honorary Service Society. She also is a volunteer at Yale-New Haven Hospital.

“I loved every second of my experience at Southern,” she said.

Vivian Shipley, a CSU Professor of English who taught Dearborn in two poetry courses, said she was impressed by the student’s vigor, as well as her poetry.

“I have been teaching full time at SCSU since 1969 and Kristen is one of the most talented poets I have ever taught,” Shipley said. “Kristen had a remarkable ability to interact with other poets because she is open-minded and sensitive to cultural differences. She also enabled others to open up and share their ideas because she was courageous enough to write about some very complicated subjects. Like Kristen’s multiple achievements at SCSU, her moving poems provide inspiration for all who read them.”

Michael Shea, chairman of the SCSU English Department, also praised Dearborn.

“Ms. Dearborn’s story is among the most inspiring and fascinating I have heard from a Southern student,” said Shea. “Her journey of personal growth…is the kind that inspires all of us who work with students at Southern.”

Dearborn has been accepted into SCSU’s Master of Public Health program, which she will begin during the upcoming fall semester.

Those of us “of a certain age” can probably recall our English teachers – at least one stickler on proper grammar – telling us not to end a sentence with a preposition. Similarly, split infinitives – a verb phrase in which the word “to” is separated from the action word – were to be avoided at all costs.

Some grammatical rules of writing, once considered non-negotiable, are being questioned and de-emphasized more often today.
Some grammatical rules of writing, once considered non-negotiable, are being questioned and de-emphasized more often today.

Sure, you might be able to get away with breaking the rules a bit in a science report. Even a social studies teacher might let it slide. But the following sentences in an English class would likely merit you with some “red ink” on your essay.

• Nobody knew where the marchers were from.
• That is what it was all about.
• We are planning to gradually improve our grades.
• They decided to fully implement the system.

As students, we were inclined to accept these rules as “grammatical gospel.” But do you know who established those rules? And why can’t we end a sentence with a preposition or use a split infinitive?

Dina Brun, an adjunct faculty member at Southern in the Department of World Languages and Literatures and who teaches Introduction to Linguistics, says the history of these rules dates back to the 17th century. She says Joshua Poole, a grammarian and rhetorician, and John Dryden, a literary writer and poet, have largely been credited with the preposition rule. Dryden was also associated with the split infinitive rule.

“These two individuals, and others, wanted to make English more like Latin,” Brun says. “In Latin, an infinitive is a single word, so there is no split.”

For example, she points to the Latin word, “clamare,” which means to claim, and “habere,” which means to have. The “re” part of the word is the English equivalent of “to.”

Brun says the rules have been getting much more relaxed in recent years. “It’s been a gradual process throughout the 20th century to the point where today, ending a sentence with a preposition is pretty much accepted,” she says. “The same is true of the split infinitive.”

And Brun said that is not necessarily a bad thing. She points out that when sentences are constructed intentionally to avoid ending in a preposition, it can lead to some awkward constructions.

For example: This is the book I told you about. To comply with the old rule, it would need to be changed to something like: This is the book about which I told you.

The same is true with the “no split infinitives” rule. For example: “We need your help to fully implement the process” would have to be changed to: “We need your help to implement fully the process.” The latter just doesn’t sound right.

Brun says that before the 17th century, there really was no such rule. She notes that even great literary geniuses, such as Shakespeare, ended sentences with prepositions.

Other language rules also are beginning to change. Brun notes that the differentiation between “who” and “whom” is beginning to wane. She says that people are beginning to drop “whom” and replace it with “who.”

Before long, we may be writing letters “To Who it May Concern.”

English teachers and writing coaches, what do you think? Is this progress or regression?