Mention the word “grammar” and reactions tend to rage bipolar, as in, “Wow! I used to love diagramming sentences. Why don’t they teach that in school any more?” and, “Oh. You’re an English teacher? I better watch my language.”
When people I meet react to my profession with a “I better watch my language,” they’re not worried about crafting a metaphor or employing a kick-ass vocabulary. They’re looking at me as the grammar police, an attitude they learned somewhere along their journey through language arts classes and first-year writing in college. I meet these middle-aged refugees from the red-penned pages of bloodied compositions more often than you might think, and their scars still ooze that one dismissive teacher’s red ink.
I’ve written on this blog before about how grammar is not absolute but morphs according to usage; it is historically contextual (language in transition). But I want to write about the opposite of grammar gloom–I want to write about grammar delight. Yes, I was one of those ninth-graders who loved diagramming sentences. I also love jigsaw puzzles. I’m beginning to believe more and more that writers have more in common with engineers than they do with painters. Writing gets put together. Writers build with language, and grammar offers the structure of that language. (For a quick and helpful read about diagramming, check out “Taming Sentences” by Kitty Burns Florey.)
“Grammar delight” is not an oxymoron but a state of linguistic play when analyzing how a sentence holds together. I had a chance recently to reinvigorate my grammar delight while taking my first massive online open course (MOOC) through Coursera. I took Crafting an Effective Writer, a basic writing course offered through Mt. San Jacinto College–along with about 60,000 other students from about 170 other countries. We’re in our last week of the class. I enrolled in a basic writing course because I had participated in a webinar describing the evolution of this course, and I wanted to experience it as a student especially to see how community college students might use this MOOC to prepare for their first-year writing courses.
I had not realized that I’d lost some of my grammar mojo until I hung out at the Grammar Connoisseur discussion thread. There, I refreshed my understanding of absolute phrases and phrasal verbs, and I paid more attention to subordinate clauses and compound-complex sentences. I noticed that the writers posting in this discussion list and others bordered on giddy when finding an answer to their grammar questions. Building stuff is play, and I’d forgotten the fun of building sentences by talking about grammar.
I also realized that I wanted a good, solid, non-digital handbook. The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White, now sits next to my bed. As soon as I finish this sentence, I’m going to go read about participial phrases.