Remember those non-stop grammar lessons in school in which we’d spend long hours pondering whether a particular word was a verb or a noun?
Yes, Sister Grammatica Correcta would drill us on parts of speech; she would use every inch of chalkboard space to diagram sentences, and to be sure, give us enthusiastic students an opportunity to strut our stuff. What fun!
We had a particularly loud end-of-class bell that I prayed would ring. In that school, Immaculate Conception, it was OK to pray — in fact, it was encouraged and often required.
Around the time that the Supreme Court was taking prayers in public schools under consideration, there came a comic strip that showed Archie, Jughead, Veronica, Betty and other classmates on a school-sanctioned ski outing. Somehow, Jughead took a spill on the slopes and landed upside-down, minutes and inches from suffering real injury.
So Jughead got the attention of the sponsor-principal and hollered, “Has the Supreme Court ruled on Prayers in Public Schools?” The principal answered, “I don’t know, Judhead. Why do you ask?”
Jughead said, “I need to know in a hurry because I’m about to pray.”
And in our own class, we often prayed that the bell would cut short our grammar lesson and spare us — for one more day.
I know I must have slept through many grammar classes. I didn’t care a whit whether the part of speech was an adverb, a preposition, a conjunction or a conglomeration, and I absolutely cared even less about something called a nominative absolute. So, as fate would have it, I spent most of my teaching career chasing commas, trying to teach the difference between “its” and “it’s.”
I spent much time consoling marginal English students with these comforting words: “There, their, they’re.”
After teaching, what better occupation could there be for a person who slept through classes than becoming a copy editor for a tri-weekly newspaper?
Somehow, between soporific states, I must have awakened long enough to pick up some of the finer points of grammar.
I wondered, while in junior high school: Does the ability to diagram a sentence (we once wrestled with diagramming the entirety of the Lord’s Prayer) guarantee the diagrammer will become a William Shakespeare? Could Faulkner pass a grammar test? How about the poet e.e. cummings, who shunned capital letters?
Of course, my question doesn’t necessarily imply that the best writers all despise grammar.
My treatise of my fear and loathing of grammar was the subject of an extended presentation I once made as a participant in a journalism workshop sponsored by the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, in St. Petersburg, Fla. The discussion, which became much more spirited than I had expected, centered around what the director of the institute called “the world’s oldest game.” And what was that? The notion of speaking in headlines.
The Florida workshop consisted of about a dozen journalism professors, some of whom said they too often spoke in headlines to punctuate their point.
In fact, one of my sons spoke in headlines, “Copy editor injured in game of tackle football,” before we agreed on the more benign “kickover,” during a Thanksgiving get-together. And I spoke in a headline Sunday night as we left the DeVargas Theater in Santa Fe after watching “The Hundred-Foot Journey,” a movie about competition between an East Indian restaurant and a high-class Parisian bistro.
Strange that my wife left the theater with an insatiable craving for Indian food, so we all had supper at the India House. Bonnie made sure there was no compromising on that venue. And my spoken headline was: “Elderly Woman Overdoses on Sag Paneer.”
Her reply: “Newspaper columnist assaulted for trying to be ‘Cute.’”
• • •
We at the Optic think in headlines, their being our pre-occupation. Each publishing day we make sure, among other things, that key words aren’t repeated, that we don’t editorialize and that we condense as much as possible.
The editorial staff goes over each headline before releasing the pages, but we get reader reaction anyway. John Geffroy, a retired instructor at the United World College, emailed me concerning a recent headline about a fracas at a downtown party. We’d headlined the article, “Police called to brawl at fundraiser.”
Now, readers might infer the meaning: A fight broke out and cops answered the call.
But Geffroy saw it differently; in an email he headed, “Police brawlers for hire,” Geffroy implied that someone was hoping to raise funds by sponsoring a brawl with police as the participants. Geffroy added, “I suppose watching the police brawl might be a real attraction for a successful fundraiser, but you and I know that was not the point.”
Yes, we do know better. But what Geffroy might not realize is that in the dead of night, infinitesimal bugs invade the already-written copy and make changes. We find that perfectly written and proof-read copy sometimes gets re-edited.
• • •
Labor Day was a scorcher, above 90 degrees. I drove by the new electronic message board at Grand and Mills. Not too long ago, I had volunteered to post information on the sign, but in those days, we attached 5-inch letters to the board with a long pole and a suction cup.
I suddenly felt a cool breeze as I read the current temperature at 3 p.m.: 76 degrees. On the north side, it was two degrees cooler.
That couldn’t be right. As I drove downtown for a second opinion, I remembered the city-slicker who visited a cornfield in Ohio as temperatures peaked, causing the cornfield to become a mammoth corn-popper.
Thinking it was a field of snow, the visitor lay down and froze.
The second opinion came from Southwest Capital Bank, where the temperature read 92. As much as I wanted to believe the message board by the Better Stop, I had to judge by the amount of perspiration people oozed.