This is the story behind the method to the science of a madness. Grammar avoided me. I chased it. It’s been a colossal tease my entire life.
Every so often Grammar waits for me to catch up and tells me, “I can’t live without you!”
Yes. You, darling.
Ok. Now that I think about it I can’t live without you either. Will you stay and forsake not all, but most, others?
Stay?! This is a traveling circus, beautiful. Don’t fence me in.
Grammar ran faster and escaped me, but left footprints. I’ve developed half-assed instincts that help me rediscover it when I lose the trail. That and it leaves love letters to me tied to the low branches in my path. The mixed messages confuse me, but I keep following.
Kindergarten through eighth grade I attended the largest school in a Northwestern Minnesota county. My class size hovered at 24. We were one of the largest classes in the district.
My 7th and 8th grade English teacher taught solid writing practices that still haunt me. To this day they moan and groan and clank chains from the margins: prewriting, double spaced rough drafts, edit, edit, edit, proofread, another rough draft, and another until it is too overdue to get a full grade. I started blogging in part to let go of making sure every sentence was perfect.
Ninth grade was the year she dedicated to serious grammar like diagramming sentences and studying parts of speech in-depth. I missed it.
When my dad died during my eighth grade year, my mom packed us seven kids up at the end of the school year and moved to South Central Minnesota. We spent one year in a school that was twice the size of my K-8 class: huge.
This new school already had spent 8th grade English diagramming sentences, studying parts of speech, past perfect versus present perfect precedential procedure… huh?, in-depth. They spent the first quarter of 9th grade reviewing what they had practiced every day of 8th grade.
That first quarter of 9th grade I got the worst grade I ever received on any high school report card: C+. No. C-. I was a strong writer but I knew nothing about the secret code of grammar they breezed through like butter on a hot bun.
Yes. I just equated grammar and breezes with hot buttered buns. Deal with it.
There I was in 9th grade purgatory where I had missed an entire year of grammar study that I never, ever got back. The next school I attended 10th through 12th grade had studied grammar in 9th grade. Story of my life. Grammar study and I = ships passing in the night, or a very dense fog.
My ability to read (tv-free until my late 20s) and observe is what made me a decent writer. But I felt cheated once I got to my English Education classes at college. How was I supposed to teach something I had never learned?!
My professors and my English teacher relatives told me that the best way to learn something was to teach it. Half of my English Ed classes were fellow students who wanted to teach English because of their love for diagramming sentences and correcting speech patterns.
But one of the main reasons I chose the “career” (safety net) of teaching English was to encourage students to expand their horizons through reading, speaking, listening, and imagination and to confidently communicate their internal and external environments to the world, without shame or fear of judgment. Especially grammar nazi judgment.
So, I taught myself grammar as best I could. I spent an entire summer with a cast-off grammar textbook and read it like novel. I don’t remember much of it. I don’t even remember much of what I taught when I did teach high school grammar. To this day I have not diagrammed a sentence.
I do remember that I craved grammar the way I crave math. I still do. Both can be comforting in the right circumstances.
The key to communicating well is… communicating… and listening and hearing and reading. There is so much gray in what I crave most about writing. You can say and do whatever you cumudgerly sayyouknow thisIsah ahloo, ahloo, ahloo. ;/
Practice Makes Closer To Adequate (Trademarked by CLVyrnon)
The book “Woe is I: the grammarphobe’s guide to better English in plain English” by Patricia T. O’Connor is one of the books on my shelf that I haven’t read until now. (You can find it filed under “white binding” in my current library… upper left-hand corner.)
The first issue she mentions is the confusion between that and which. I’ve never studied the difference until now, just let my instincts lead me to the right word. But I’m not necessarily using that versus which properly. For practice in noticing the difference I’m searching through my old Hot4Jesus blog posts and correcting the word choice if needed, getting thoroughly confused sometimes and other times noticing superfluous words that I edit out.
What grammar rules and regulations keep you up at night? What grammar books do you recommend?
You are a brave soul for teaching yourself after your experience. I went to Catholic school and was diagraming sentences in 7th and 8th grade, which made me test high for Advanced English classes in public high school. However, I HATED diagraming sentences. It was easy for me to know how it should be, I just didn’t know how to explain it. I did a lot of guessing. So, bravo to you!!!!
Ha! Grammar is pretty much a guessing game, now that you mention it.
You are fortunate to have learned at least some grammar at school. From the late 1960s to the early 1990s, no grammar was taught in schools in England, on the spurious grounds that it stifled creativity. A couple of specific comments on your post:
“I started blogging in part to let go of making sure every sentence was perfect.”
As a former book editor, I have retained the habits that I developed then. My sentences may not be perfect, but the grammar is correct, and there are no typos or spelling mistakes.
“…the confusion between that and which. I’ve never studied the difference until now, just let my instincts lead me to the right word.”
It isn’t difficult. My complaint is that “that” is now widely used when “which” should have been, and I’m puzzled as to why this should be so. I even wrote about it here, which you may find useful.
I never thought I’d be so engrossed reading a post on grammar.
English is not my mother-tongue (is that hyphen correct?). But I read and reread High School English Grammar by P.C. Wren rather early in my life. But that was about all. I was to major in English Literature later on but I have remained guided purely by my instincts in matters pertaining to grammar. For years I have owned a book called Eats, Shoots & Leaves but haven’t been able to bring myself to begin reading it.
I’ve never known the difference between “that” and “which”, and I have no clue as to where exactly a comma is needed, when it is helpful, but not necessary, and when it’s just one comma, too, many. Thanks for a fun article!