Gramatically Speaking



I’m reading a brand new book called “Mennonite in a Little Black Dress” by Rhoda Janzen. (It hasn’t even been published, but thanks to LibraryThing, I got a pre-pub copy.  Run, run, run and sign up for their Early Reviewers group.  You will thank me.)

This book is worthy of an entire blog post (stay tuned), but I will share with you one small passage.  Janzen, an English professor at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, while talking about reading a friend’s dissertation writes,

 “It is not unreasonable that English professors are often targeted for this favor.  If you also happen to be a grammarian who creepily who knows how to diagram every sentence in the English language, there is an even more urgent need for your services.  I’m the sicko who can explain why a gerundive phrase must attach to a possessive adjective pronoun rather than an object pronoun.  True, you wouldn’t want me at a party, but if the survival of the human race depended on the successful parsing of the Constitution, you’d be knockin’ on my door, baby.”

This paragraph greatly distressed me.  Although she’s deadpan funny, Rhoda Janzen described something that’s been on my mind since I was in my 20’s.  Did I even know what a gerundive phrase was?  Obviously, it’s a phrase with a gerund stuck somewhere, but how about that possesive adjective pronoun stuff? 

It was all coming back to me.  No, not my English education – that’s tucked back in the recesses of my brain.  Alas, the fact that I tried so hard to avoid it was indeed becoming quite clear.

I used to love to write creatively, but when it came to breaking down the English language into minute, bite-sized portions, I just couldn’t have cared less.   True, I watched “Grammar Rock” with the rest of the gen-x kids, but it apparently wasn’t the answer to all of my questions beyond a noun being a person, place or thing (or being able to buy adverbs at Lolly’s).

I also never liked the constraints that proper English put upon a person.  For example, I happen to hate semicolons.  I find them to be awkward and stuffy.  I realize that I need them; I tend to write long sentences that just barely escape being considered run-on.  However, dashes are so much more vibrant.  They say, “Hey – I’m not done with my sentence yet.” 

You get the picture.  Teaching me English wasn’t going to be easy.

My inability to remember how to analyze my native language has bothered me for quite some time.  Coincidently, while looking for a book for a patron regarding verb tenses, I came across a very fun looking volume called “Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog: the Quirky History and Lost Art of Diagramming Sentences” by Kitty Burns Florey.   It had a cute boxer dog on the front and was an appealing shade of blue.  A good sign, thought I, so I took it home.

Florey, another fan of English grammar, reflects back upon her education under the tutelage of her sixth grade teacher, Sister Bernadette.  She writes, “I thought diagramming was fun, and most of my friends who were subjected to it look back with varying degrees of delight.  Some of us were better at it than others, but it was considered a kind of treat, a game that broke up the school day.”

Clearly, Kitty and I don’t exist on the same existential plane. I remember diagramming sentences, and, in my most sincere questioning mind, wondered what exactly the point was.  Ah, the folly of youth.

I’ve had conversations with people whose English abilities I revere about this parts-of-speech problem that I have.  I specifically remember talking to my BFF “J” about it one day. “So, J, I’ve been thinking that I missed out on learning the parts of speech and I wonder if you could help me review.”  “Of course”, she said in her best school teacher voice, “what do you need to know?”  

At this point, I brought out a yellowing stack of papers that had the purple mimeograph type that smacked of the 1980’s.  Wondering where I got them, I explained that I had been saving them since middle school and would she be so kind to go over them with me?

So, for an hour we went over sentence structure.  The crisp answers that she gave are lost in time but I can still remember how I felt.  It’s too late to go home.

Perhaps I should accept my fate and move on.  Or, similar to my struggles with math, I can buy some sort of book like “Basic English for Dummies” in order to be a better role model for my children.  In the meantime, I will probably continue to dangle my participles and incorrectly punctuate my sentences.     

After all, ain’t nobody gonna correct me.  The English language police are too busy dealing with the effects of texting.  Theez daze there r wors problms than forgettin wut a possessive adjective pronoun is. K?


6 thoughts on “Gramatically Speaking

  1. We had dinner with my parents last night and my mom (university professor of German) was talking about how she has some students right now to whom she has had to explain what a verb is *in English, their native language* before being able to move on to the actual language she’s supposed to be teaching them. I’d say that if you know what a verb is, you’re probably okay (bonus points for identifying a direct object).

  2. The German teacher at school was just complaining about the same thing that Anne’s mom was.

    Also–I love dashes, too! They are somehow more reflective of what I’m trying to say!

    • I think your and Anne’s points are valid. If you’re going to speak another language, you must have a good grasp on your own. Interestingly, Eldest Son’s composition teacher showed the class “Grammar Rock” the first week of class. Seems like a lot of what we’ve learned in elementary school is lost by the time we hit high school.

  3. While I do love a good grammar session, Kitty must have have been smokin’ something prior to Sister Bernadette’s class, eh? Diagramming sentences falls somewhere in the range of long walks in really uncomfortable shoe and standing in grocery lines that will not end. No fun and tedious!

  4. Pingback: Mennonite In a Little Black Dress « Not Your Mother’s Weblog…

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