grammar delight

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.

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language in transition

Language morphs according to our needs. What was incorrect decades ago may now be correct.

Here’s one example of language in transition–pronoun-antecedent agreement. The following sentence is grammatically correct:

Everyone should bring his or her jacket to the game.

But if you utter this sentence, won’t you sound like a snooty reject from the English Honors Society? Yes. You will.

We say, “Everyone should bring their jacket to the game” because we’re talking, and we want to communicate–not stop and check whether or not our pronoun agrees in number with the antecedent noun.

But will your first-year writing college instructor deduct points if you write the second sentence instead of the first? Yes. Maybe. It depends.

Check out this talk by the Merriam Webster Word Nerds (my pet name for these language wizards). I love that these short videos focus on language in context–not on language as an absolute. Watch as Emily Brewster, Associate Editor at Merriam Webster, discusses “The Awkward Case of ‘His or Her.'”

My favorite illustration of language in transition occurs during Gentlemen Prefer Blonds, when the character played by Marilyn Monroe points to a poster with her name and says, “It is I.” If you’re like me, you hear that sentence and can’t believe it’s coming out of Marilyn’s mouth. But in the 1950s, this grammatically correct sentence sounded natural. No one sitting in a movie theater in the 1950s would have flinched. But when you answer the phone today, how often do you say, “It is I.” Again, echoes of that snooty English Honors Society outcast.