Asleep during grammar class

Several of us were chatting about what we learned in elementary school, and most agreed the subject that caused the most difficulty was grammar.

My wife and I visited with a new acquaintance, Meggie, at a staff party Saturday. I made the point — with as much veracity as I could muster — that I had slept through most grammar classes during my years at Immaculate Conception School.

But years later, what I dozed through came back when I needed it. It gives credence to those learn-in-your-sleep foreign language lessons, which don’t work for me.

So the grammar rules somehow returned when I decided the noblest professions are teaching and writing. They’re far more rewarding than medicine, law, social work, the ministry, engineering, psychiatry, the theater, business or athletics. No contest. (Not that I’ve done all or any of these things, mind you.)

Writing gives us a chance not only to convey what we believe others should read, but to manipulate the language, to use irony, allusion and nuance, to choose from among the 650,000 gems English possesses, and watch them work.

Being a writer allows me to use the world’s most beautiful word, “petrichor,” during an afternoon rain, and get away with it, in the hope readers will look up the word.

Yes, language can be sublime, but I posit that it retains its luster in spite of our efforts to degrade it.

I came across an educational tract, dated in the ‘50s, decrying the way teachers of English grammar approach the noun first, then the verb, then the adjective, etc., and explain the same thing in every grade, in the same way. We drill the young-uns on parts of speech, subordination, parallelism, concord, tense, case and number. Then we turn them loose and wonder why they can’t all write like Frost or Michener.

Knowing the rules is generally merely an exercise in avoiding errors, not a step toward creativity.

I hope to make the case that we wasted a lot of time in school back then teaching someone’s confused idea of knowledge: diagramming. Yes, some classrooms took on a dismaying similarity to the stereotypical Chinese laundry, with every chalkboard filled with strange configurations whose elements get separated by straight, diagonal and curved lines, all purporting to identify the subject, predicate, direct object, modifiers, prepositional phrases, etc.

One of our teachers, Sister Mary Dolce Vita, ran us through many lessons — she called them “parsing” — which I took parsonally when it seemed I made more trips than normal to the board to tout my ineptitude.

To spend weeks on an exercise-torture that teaches only subordination and the relationships of words is the scholastic equivalent of eating menudo. We can swallow it, but that doesn’t mean we have to like it. We can take any sentence, fraught with errors, and diagram it perfectly. Does a diagram magically help us correct the sentence? No.

Some teachers and students who actually liked diagramming did so because that discipline, just like a mathematical equation, had one solution, verified by an answer key at the back of the teacher’s manual.

In spite of the swimming-against-the-tide efforts of many of us die-hards, language remains our passion. But notice how many things have emerged to adulterate the language. One obvious example is a number of writing programs on computers that continue to place quotation marks inside the period and comma, “like this”.

In American English, we put the period and the comma inside the quotation marks. A pushy student challenged me after I’d challenged his placement of punctuation marks. I explained that grammar rules aren’t entirely logical, but still my student persisted.

I asked John Adams, then the chairman of the Highlands English department, for a succinct explanation of the period-inside-the-quotation-mark mystery history. He answered, “I’ve given up trying to explain why it’s done that way. I simply tell them it looks neater.”

It looks neater. End of subject. And predicate. And quotation.

But back to things that degrade the language. Our zeal to compress every thought, to get our texting and twittering done before the next traffic light change, makes us cut corners. LOL means laughing out loud, or a cute way of saying “just a joke.” OMG stands for O my god. The one I like most is AAAAA, which stands for American Association Against Acronym Abuse.

A devoted twitterer or texter can supply many other shortcuts. My disclosure is that I have never twittered and have texted only a couple of times, and only in response to another text. My cell phone intuits what I’m about to write. As I depress a single key, the phone “knows” my meaning and proceeds with any of dozens of choices including “gotcha,” “seeya,” “meetcha,” “missya” and “luvya.”

Now, what kind of example does that set for today’s youth, tomorrow’s leaders?

It’s awkward trying to write as if I’m witnessing the decay of the last vestiges of language while at the same time admitting there’s no way to reverse trends. A New York Times article on the demise of modern communication stresses the notion that most e-mail, twitter and text communications contain only lower case letters. It asks whether that’s the message a job applicant, for example, wishes to convey.

Strait-laced language cops such as I will continue our attempts at keeping English at a high plane, but the task appears daunting.

So, between you and me (not you and I), let there always be a grammar and usage book handy, and lest we forget, “Old grammar teachers never die; they just parse away.”

One thought on “Asleep during grammar class

  1. Ben Moffett

    Well parsed for sure. I might challenge you on your point that we wasted a lot of time on grammar. What we lost a lot of time on was spelling. We spend most of our life learning to spell, and we hold national championship spelling bees. As far as I can tell there is never a spelling bee in Spanish because there are only five vowel sounds and spelling can be mastered without fanfare. No problems with “ph” or any of the rest of it. How about making Spanish the national language so we won’t have to waste time learning spelling when we could be learning science and math?
    One other thing. I’ve known the word “posit” for years, but I’ve only seen it used regularly for the six months or so. It seems to be the lastest fad. Did someone on TV start using it, or what?
    One of my pet peeves is new words that develop on TV, especially from the cop shows. I don’t like “gone missing” or “went missing” or do I like “going down,” “went down,” and I especially don’t like it when it’s used when outside the realm of the cop shop, which it frequently is.
    Thanks for the best newspaper columns anywhere in New Mexico, Art. Keep up the good work.

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