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?