Grammar by Guess and By Golly

Also punctuation.

The Little Red School House–the school I went to as a kid–was one of the earliest progressive schools–possibly the first in New York City, where I grew up. The emphasis was on learning by doing and experimentation, and it was, in almost every way, a terrific education. On some things Little Red very unusual: at a time when kids were routinely taught penmanship, we weren’t. We had art and music and shop classes (I adored shop, in particular, and when we moved out of the city I was appalled to find that in public schools that offered shop, girls were emphatically not allowed). Little Red also indulged in the “New Math,” which did not sit well with my old-math brain.

But more than that, we had the “New Grammar!” Did you even know such a thing existed? It did, and pedagogically it fell right in line with Little Red’s philosophy of learning by doing. In the case of the New Grammar, this meant a curriculum in which we were supposed to be Venusians trying to understand the rules of English. Which is a terrific way to get a kid to think about how words work together, and why. Where it fell down, in terms of talking to the rest of the world, was that rather than saying “those words that name things? they’re nouns,” we called them Class I words. Because a Venusian wouldn’t know from “noun” as a word, right? Verbs were Class II, adjectives were Class III, and so on and so on. We didn’t start learning this New Grammar until 7th grade, and we didn’t spend all year at it, and I don’t believe it was continued into 8th grade. But I could (and can) look at a sentence and have a pretty good idea if it has gone off the rails.

Move forward to 9th grade, when I found myself in a traditional public school in a much more traditional neighborhood in rural Massachusetts. And my English teacher said something about diagramming sentences. Diagramming what, now? The Venusians had not diagrammed sentences. I watched in dawning horror as every kid in my class went up to the board to diagram, knowing that this process was going to be expected of me. I took my teacher aside and explained that I had never encountered this–that I didn’t even have the vocabulary my classmates were using. My writing suggested that I understood grammar pretty solidly–and if pushed to it I could explain why something was wrong in my own words. My teacher and I worked something out–I have blocked out what that was–and I got past this unit with less humiliation than I might otherwise have done. But beyond the most basic classes (nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs) I still wuffle on terminology. Same thing with punctuation: I can’t necessarily explain why I do something, but I by God want to do it that way.

At the museum where I work, we routinely run all public-facing copy past a committee composed of the three employees: me, the director, and the program coordinator. Much of the reading involves making sure everything is in the correct tense and the verb-forms agree with the nouns. But I also spend a good deal of my editorial time at work attempting, with my semi-Venusian vocabulary, to explain why a phrase isn’t working properly. My boss, who took standard normal-people English grammar, can sometimes take my borked explanation and translate it into comprehensible-by-Terrans terms. Sometimes not. Same thing with punctuation (my boss wants as few commas as possible; I am a little more loosey goosey about commas, and you will have to pry my Oxford comma out of my cold, dead hand with a crowbar and some dynamite).

What it comes down to, in my view, is that a sentence has to say what it means. Which sounds obvious, right? But if a word choice gets in the way, or the grammar makes it possible to read a sentence in more than one way, disambiguate. Even if it’s not the way the rules say to make it (you can boldly go and split an infinitive form–that rule comes from latin, where the infinitive form is one word, not two, as in English, and I will fight you on thus). In the final analysis, I want anyone reading what I wrote to know what I was getting at. Don’t you?



Grammar by Guess and By Golly — 8 Comments

  1. I wish they’d had New Grammar in my school. Studying Old Grammar messed up my writing because I lost the flow if I had to explain why something mattered. I did like to diagram sentences, perhaps because my 7th grade English teacher made a game of it, perhaps because it gave me a framework for looking at sentences. I learned to write at home because my mother, an editor extraordinaire, went over my papers. To this day, my grammar is instinctive.

    I firmly agree with you that the most important rule of writing is to say things so that others understand what you mean. If you make me follow rules instead of reading and revising until the sentence sounds right, though, I can’t do it.

    My school was not progressive, given that it was in a small Texas town that had not yet become a suburb of Houston. But we did have New Math, which I found wonderful. Old Math, in my experience, was memorizing the multiplication tables and doing things because someone said so, while New Math made sense. But I was blessed with a virtuoso teacher who had gone back to school to learn to teach New Math and believed that everyone could learn it. Would that everyone had been blessed with Mrs. Collins for math.

  2. We all read a lot as kids, too. The best way to learn how language works is to read a lot of good writing.

  3. Mad, that comma picture is not playing well with Facebook. I’ll keep trying to get the blog up properly.

  4. The important thing about grammar is know what you can do with a sentence to throw emphasis where you want it and set up pace and things. Formally naming them is another matter.

    • ^This.

      Now that I’m not being graded on it, I find the formal naming thing kind of interesting, in the way I find any attempt to impose order on an inherently disordered thing (like the English language, which is a glorious patchwork with all the loose threads dangling proudly) to be interesting.

  5. Thanks, Mad. I didn’t know about the “New Grammar.” Fun to grow up as an alien? Most of us *ahem* older writers grew up reading a lot, and in those days you could generally rely on books to be edited for grammar and punctuation, so we naturally absorbed the “rules” or sense of clear communication. Nowadays, there is so much published without a notion of consensual grammar/punctuation that it’s no wonder young people struggle to find common ground in writing. (I witnessed it for years while teaching even upper-level creative writing at the university. Many of my students said I was the first instructor to teach them grammar/punctuation, which shouldn’t have been my job at that level.) Tower of Babel, here we come! Okay, end of rant….