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.