But Tactfully

DSC_0934From Alexander, the grammarian, [I learned] to refrain from faultfinding, and not in a reproachful way to chide those who uttered any barbarous or incorrect or strange-sounding expression; but tactfully to introduce the very expression which they ought to have used, in the course of an answer or assent or inquiry about the thing, not about the word; or by some other suitable suggestion.

— Marcus Aurelius

The timeline of my grammar life could be summed up in a few words: apathetic → indifferent → learned-through-teaching → pompous donkey → repellant sheriff → quieter → still learning manners.

There was a time in my life, alas, when I would not hesitate to correct your grammar, nay, when I would swoop down and pounce upon your words as an eagle dives for a fish. There was a time when I approved of scoldfests written by grammar purists.

There was a time, cough cough, when I publicly corrected my son in the middle of a toast at a wedding reception. Indeed, it’s true! But here’s the deal. He said, speaking to his brother-in-law (groom) and sister-in-law (bride), that “my mom should probably get a finder’s fee since two marriages happened because of her Grammar Class: First me and Jessie got married and now you two.” I could only stand up and say, “JESSIE AND I” … and the crowd roared with laughter. If it had been a art class or a science class I would never have said a peep!

I pray those times are behind me. I hope I’ve learned that people are more precious than words. There is a time to refrain from faultfinding.


Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog

DSC_8942My husband, home sick from work, was fixing to fascinate me with stories about locks at the hospital. My responses cycled between “Hmmm” “Oh?” “yeah” and “wow.” He shook his head in exasperation and complained, “I’m trying to impress you and you aren’t responding!”

“Babe,” I lifted my head and made eye contact. “I have three pages left of this book.”

“Oh?” he said. “What are you reading?”

“Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog … a book about diagramming sentences.”

We dissolved into laughter at the absurdity of diagramming edging out locksmithing.

When I was a student, I was not gripped by grammar. Caron, my camp friend, used to amuse herself by counting the spelling and grammar mistakes in my letters. The fun flattened when the error count declined to three or four. I still stumble over less and fewer, lay and lie, hopefully and I hope.

Kitty Burns Florey is a fun look back. Moderately fun. To those who suffered through grammar, it has about the same nostalgic power as a teeter-totter has to two chunksters in their fifties. (Have you noticed that teeter-totters disappeared from playgrounds? Hmmm?)

Relax! Florey’s acerbic tone spices up this bland subject. She calls Eats, Shoots & Leavesa “popular scold-fest.” I enjoyed her prose and reveled in her side notes.

The fact is that a lot of people don’t need diagramming or anything else: they pick up grammar and syntax effortlessly through their reading—which, in the case of most competent users of words, ranges from extensive to fanatical. The language sticks to them like cat hair to black trousers, and they do things correctly without knowing why.

I learned details about words, a bonus she couldn’t resist throwing in. (When Kitty isn’t writing books, she is a copy editor.) I learned that enormity means a very great wickedness, not a very large hugeness. Likewise, infinitesimal means endless, not very, very small. She explained that a Lion’s share is 100%, not a majority. Ain’t, don’t you know, exists because we don’t have a contraction for “am not.” So ain’t used with the first person singular (the pronoun I) is technically correct.

My opinion is that English grammar can be taught with more ease and more adhesion through the ear rather than the eye, with vocal chants/songs such as those used in The Shurley Method or Grammar Songs. But, I enjoyed the refresher course on sentence diagramming.

The visual delight of the book are the diagrams of unwieldy sentences by James, Hemingway (whose sentences are normally spare), Fenimore Cooper, Twain, Proust, Oates, Updike, Kerouac, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Welty and Powell.

I couldn’t resist trying a long sentence myself. Above is the answer to the first question of the Heidelberg Catechism. Corrections are welcome.

Mama, Don’t Let Your Baby Grow Up Without Grammar

“…he writes the worst English
I have ever encountered.
It reminds me of a string of wet sponges;
reminds me of tattered washing on the line;
it reminds me of stale
of college yells,
of dogs barking idiotically through
endless nights.
It is so bad a sort of grandeur creeps into it.
drags itself out of the dark abysm of pish,
and crawls up to the
topmost pinnacle of posh.
It is rumble and bumble.
It is flap and doodle.
It is balder and dash.”
          ~  H.L. Mencken

“The only man, woman or child who wrote a simple declarative sentence with seven grammatical errors is dead.”
          ~  E.E. Cummings

The subject of these scathing sentences is our twenty-ninth president, Warren G. Harding.  It is said that he was elected because of his striking good looks (?? I’m just not into eyebrows) and his ambitious wife.  He promised a return to normalcy – one of his favorite words, a word journalists thought should be normality — but his short term was marked by scandal.

Thus endeth the history lesson of the day.