The Mechanics of Good Grammar (or, “How to Balance Your Diet by Diagramming Sentences”)

So we let grammar slip from the curriculum.  And forty years on we live with the consequences. The teachers who might teach it know too little to even begin.  Though it’s true that you learn most of what you need by living inside the language, still, you don’t know what it is you know. You have no language to speak of the system and its parts. You cannot name your mistakes when you feel you have made them; nor, therefore, can you fix them. When your car with its fancy engine — which is to say, when your sentence — breaks down, there’s not a thing under its hood whose function you understand, whose name you can name. You couldn’t even talk usefully to the mechanic who came when you called, if there were such a person.  (from Writing Well by Mark Tredinnick)

Now, I could go on a rant about the misuse and abuse of the English language over the past several decades.  But I won’t.  Instead, I’ll shift Tredinnick’s analogy (above) from cars to food and share a little story of how I came to enjoy the “fruits and vegetables” of good grammar to encourage you to try a taste.

I am 48 years old.  When I started elementary school (actually called “grammar school” at the time), I was taught the basics of “reading, writing, and arithmetic”. True, I was not particularly fond of the diet of “Dick and Jane” readers, or being graded on “penmanship” (Orwellian for “obsessively neat hand writing”).  Yet, I now look back on this time as training, like doing dribbling, passing, or running drills to become a better basketball player.

Fast forward to high school.  I had moved from a low-ranking consolidated school to a competitive one in the suburbs.  There were two basic educational tracks – one for college prep and one for vocational skills.  I tested high in math and was put on an advance track.  I bombed the English test, however.  I blame my Kentuckian heritage – English is a second language in my household.   So, I was put in with remedial students, learning such things as distinguishing nouns, verbs, and adjectives all over again.  Fortunately, my teacher quickly saw that I had mastered the basics, and she gave me additional assignments (and even had me correcting papers, which didn’t sit too well with my peers).

Before I graduated from high school, I was doubling up on English classes so I could take both Creative Writing and Classic Literature courses.  Still, when I took the SAT, I scored nearly 200 points higher in math than in  English.  My guidance counselor just shook his head when I told him I was pursuing English rather than engineering (but he didn’t question me likely because his wife was one of the passionate teachers in the English department).

So I studied English literature and creative writing at a small, private, reasonably respected liberal arts college – Hanover.  I bought a t-shirt that read “Hanover – The Harvard of the Midwest” which I wore proudly until I saw a friend from high school wearing one that said, “Depauw – The Harvard of the Midwest”.  I guess there was a close-out on “Harvard of the Midwest” shirts that year.

As an English major, I read a lot and I wrote a lot.  In some classes, we were asked to keep journals.  We were graded more on reflective thought and creativity than grammar (in fact, I’m not sure our grammar was even corrected).  Yet, in nearly all my courses, we did weekly theme papers.  The grammar was corrected and, if it was poor, your grade was marked down.  In some cases you had to write it again.  It was not pleasant to see the red markings on the page (only one of my professors had adopted the more “psychologically correct” color green).  But, it was good medicine (sort of like an herbal compound) to learn good grammar so I could better express myself.

One of my favorite college courses was entitled “The History of the English Language” taught by Dr. Jonathan Smith.  For much of the course, we learned about the origins of spoken and written English, the way the language has evolved, adapted and adopted features from victors and victims of takeovers.  There was even a section of the course where Dr. Smith had us collect slang words and phrases currently in use, which he had been collecting in all of his 75 years of teaching (Just kidding, Dr. Smith.  He only recently celebrated his 75th year of teaching.  He was in his 20s when I was there).

A portion of the course, though, was set aside to diagram sentences.  That’s right.  English majors in their junior and senior years, some heading to pursue Ph.Ds at reputable schools, drawing lines denoting nouns and verbs and adjectives.  It was bit more complicated than what I remembered in grade school – like doing a black-and-white puzzle with only a hint of a fuzzy sketch to guide you.  But I enjoyed it.  And, it helped me become a better writer.

The purpose of good grammar, as Mark Tredinnick points out in Writing Well is to keep the engine of sound sentences running smoothly.  Again, to shift to my food metaphor, learning the basics of grammar is like eating your fruits and vegetables so your expressive life (both spoken and written) can be more healthy, bountiful and abundant.  My hope is that, instead of abandoning the nutritious whole foods of good grammar and adopting a diet of artificial abbreviations that will leave us malnourished and misunderstood, we can “taste and see” the goodness of writing well.

fruit and vegetables

(“Fruit & vegetable basket” from muammerokumus, some rights reserved)

5 thoughts on “The Mechanics of Good Grammar (or, “How to Balance Your Diet by Diagramming Sentences”)

  1. I minored in writing in college, double majoring in music and psychology. In the writing minor, never once did I have to diagram a sentence. I have what skills I have by way of intuition and a sound musical ear.

    “To who it may concern” is wrong and I am certain of it; but, I am sure for all the wrong reasons. The articles “a” and “an” are easy to use. I pick up a pencil. I pick up an apple. And so I “know” how to use “who” and “whom” by how it sounds, by whether the next word begins with a vowel or not. Forgive me, but this need for smoothing out the sound of the phrase has no sound basis in theory but it makes me a better writer than most.

    Back to college.

    With one more writing elective to complete my minor I boldly chose “Modern English Syntax.” It was a 400-level class and I reasoned that my understanding was mechanically incomplete and I was also just curious what would be covered and how. Somehow it was not unsettling to learn that the head of the English Department was the only one to teach this class and she asked firstly, “How many of you here are english majors?” Everyone but myself raised their hands. “And how many of you are retaking this class in order to satisfy your requirements to graduate?” Two thirds of the class raised their hands. “And how many are here for a third go-round?” At least a third sheepishly raised your hands. “When you can achieve the grade of ‘C’ or above in this class you will be granted a diploma and not before.”

    Game on.

    I did wonderfully throughout the class and I got lazy. When I was handed the final exam it might as well have been written in hieroglyphics. I had not a clue what to do with it. I had a solid powerful “A” throughout the class and only because of that final I was granted my only “C” in my college career.

    What I would ask of you, sir, is the recommendation of a good primer or series of books on syntax, particularly on diagramming sentences. I would improve myself. I start best simply because I have a great need to understand something completely and I don’t mind being spoken down to. A children’s book would suit me as well as any other.

    Recommendations please. While it does amuse me to use “The Force”, that “C” still stings after 30 years.

    • I commend you for your candor. You clearly have a “natural” ability to use good grammar. I put “natural” in quotes because it was no doubt developed through carefully listening to good speech and reading good writing. I fear these have become rare commodities in our world today.

      As for a primer, I will ask my former professor of the “English Language” course (I sent him a copy of my post). I honestly don’t remember if we used a published text or if he taught us from his personal notes. For starters, you might check out the books I’ve listed on my page “Books on Writing”. Some of these deal with the basics (though not diagramming sentences).

      Thanks for your response.

    • I just thought of this as well…

      As a musician, you must appreciate the value of learning to read and write music. You can be a good musician playing by ear, but can you become a symphony conductor? Learning the mechanics of good grammar allows us to better express ourselves in ways that more people can understand, be inspired by, and respond to.

      (Note: I realize I ended that last sentence with a preposition – a grammar rule I was taught never to violate. Yet, I have followed the wise words of Winston Churchill who was once challenged about ending a sentence with a preposition. His response? “That is a comment, sir, up with I shall not put!”)

      Thanks, Tony

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