Sister Berenice and I

I am not a language expert, but an avid amateur, a hobbyist. I fell in love with grammar during my eight years at St. Mark’s Elementary School in Brooklyn, New York. All of the nuns there were grammar taskmistresses, but none more than a nun I will call Sister Mary Berenice, my seventh-grade teacher. As I recall it, we spent the entire school year of 1958–59 diagramming sentences.

Good old Sister Berenice. In addition to having an explosively short temper, a complexion that went from wan to fire-engine red in seconds, and a sneaky left–right combination, Sister Berenice was a diagramming champ; we (or those of us who embraced this odd pursuit) spent evenings dreaming up complicated sentences for her to diagram. She never faltered.

There followed four years of Latin at a Jesuit high school in New York City, with three years of ancient Greek and two of French marching close on Latin’s heels. I see now that it was in high school that the language bug drilled in and nested in my brain.

As detailed in the Who Am I? section of this blog, what started as an interest developed into a hobby, then a college major and graduate school program, and finally a career. It may also have saved my life.

How language ability saved my life and supported my nation’s war effort. When I was drafted out of graduate school and into the U.S. Army in 1969, my interest in languages, substantiated by whatever score I received on a placement exam called the “Army Language Aptitude Test,” spared me from assignment to the infantry (where I am told they used rifles) and diverted me into a military occupational specialty (MOS) of translator/interpreter of Vietnamese (where we used dictionaries). For everyone’s sake, I think this was a wise move on the part of the Pentagon.

What this meant was that, once I had completed basic training, the Army sent me to El Paso, Texas, to learn a highly militarized version of Vietnamese. After nine months doing that, I won an all-expense-paid vacation to Bien Hoa, Vietnam, where—with impeccable Army logic—I was immediately assigned to the motor pool to repair 2½-ton trucks (known as deuce-and-a-halves).

After a few months of this, my assignment was straightened out and I was permitted to exercise my halting Vietnamese in support of whatever we were doing there. I must admit that this language never really took; it has since abandoned me, and vice versa, entirely.

Since 1992, I have devoted my language skills to a language that I actually know, English. I am a freelance editor and technical writer working with my life and work partner Amy. We are co-owners of a professional editing company called AHEM Writing and Editing. You will find our web page at http://ahemwritingandediting.weebly.com.

Who Might Enjoy This Blog?

People who might enjoy participating in this blog include:

  • The curious. This includes native English speakers who are curious about language and/or grammar: what makes a sentence grammatical, what syntax is, the origin of odd words and expressions, why some people seem to be obsessed about “good grammar,” why people are judged by their grammar.
  • The hesitant. In this group are English speakers who may be reluctant to speak publicly because they are less than completely sure of the correctness of their words, phrases, and sentences. These are people who have doubts about their usage of English.
  • Language learners. This category includes native English speakers who are learning a language other than English and, because of their engagement with a different language, have to face for the first time the requirements, constraints, and vocabulary of grammar.
  • Writers. This includes writers who may have concerns about the correctness, sophistication, and effectiveness of their writing.
  • Hobbyists. In this group are people who simply love language and enjoy talking about, playing with, studying, and dealing with questions about language in general, the English language in particular, changes in English, the need for standards in English, the future of English, and similar topics.
  • Purists. This includes people who believe that the English language is endangered because current trends in language use appear to militate against what had previously been accepted as “proper” usage.
  • Grammar grouches. This category includes people with pet peeves about somewhat specialized or minuscule features of common English usage; they are irritated by such things as split infinitives (you have to always be vigilant), the misuse of apostrophes (or is it apostrophe’s?), the demise or misuse of the word whom (and, seriously, who can you ask about this?), the use of I instead of me after a preposition (just between you and I, this one really bugs me), and so on.
  • Professionals. In this group are people who make their living using words, crafting effective sentences, creating powerful and expressive paragraphs, and designing complete written or spoken works that rely on the careful use of English vocabulary, grammar, spelling, punctuation, and structures.

I have been, and am, a member of every one of the above categories. As noted elsewhere in this blog, I make my living from writing and editing, I worry about proper English usage, I am currently learning Spanish, I am ever curious about language, and I confess to being sometimes fussy about features of current English usage that I find annoying.

On the other hand, I try to be reasonable about evolution in our language. I accept that English has always been admirably generous in opening its doors and dictionaries to foreign words, new coinages, creative spellings, playful words, bent grammar, regionalisms and dialects, and virtually all other forms of linguistic development and accretion.

 

English is welcoming

Why Study Grammar?

In a previous post (What I Mean by “Grammar”), I observed that the acquisition of the grammar of one’s first language (L1) is instinctive. As I said, “We acquire the grammar of our first language by hearing it at home and producing gradually improving approximations of grammatical oral language by ourselves and with the help of others.”

So, if we all know about grammar, at least to the point of being able to use it without thinking about it, why study it? We don’t study breathing.

This is a good question.

Implicit vs. explicit grammar. My answer is that, although we all know the basics of English grammar, our knowledge is implicit, not explicit. We know how to use grammar the way we know how to tie our shoes: We may do it every day, but we can’t tell anyone else how to do it. We do not know our grammar thoroughly or usefully.

Let’s start with “thoroughly.” Our native understanding of our own grammar is incomplete. Grammar is actually a remarkably sophisticated tool. There are subtleties of English grammar, which have arisen by conventional agreement over centuries and continue to evolve today, to which most of us are never exposed and of which we therefore remain unaware. The fact is that those subtleties distinguish careful, artful English use from less artful use. And some of the subtlest of those subtleties distinguish professional from amateur usage.

Now, how about “usefully”? If we use English grammar only instinctively, we do not formally learn the components and elements of grammar. But it is those elements that permit us to use grammar as a tool to analyze our own or other people’s statements; assess their accuracy, effectiveness, and elegance; and know when they are less than satisfactory. It is knowledge of the elements of English grammar—and their names—that gives us the power to talk about grammar, to use grammatical knowledge to analyze sentence logic, to apply our understanding of grammar to our study of other languages, and to comprehend the differences and similarities between English and other languages.

It is clear that not everyone is—or needs to be—concerned about the subtleties of grammar. It should also be clear, but isn’t, that those who are unconcerned about those subtleties are not incompetent or faulty users of  their native grammar, because it is essentially impossible to be incompetent in the grammar of one’s first language. Those of us who are careful about grammar are exercising a choice to be a bit fussy; we have the responsibility to avoid stigmatizing those who do not choose to be so meticulous about language.

In this blog, I will try to remain true to this responsibility. To begin with, I will try to treat “proper” grammar (which is better considered as standard grammar, meaning the grammar used by most careful English speakers and writers) as a subject of curiosity and interest, not bragging or social distinction. The subtleties of grammar are inherently interesting, I think, and anyone who loves this language may benefit from a more intricate knowledge of them.

Furthermore, careful language use usually reflects clarity of thought and produces clear expression. Such use is susceptible to analysis, critique, and logical argument. It is of course possible for careful speakers and writers to produce intentionally unclear expression for the purpose of obfuscation or deception, but if their words are carefully chosen and structured, critical analysis can reveal just how they have achieved their malign purpose and can help us to rebut their assertions.

Finally, careful speakers and writers use language artfully: They achieve beauty and elegance of expression, the way a careful user of paintbrushes, pencils, and chisels produces visual art. This sort of language use results in literature that benefits all of us, even those who do not or cannot follow suit.

However, those who do not care a whit about grammar, but just use it as they have always done—as a natural inheritance—are making a perfectly sane and reasonable choice. The good thing for all of us is that careful users of English understand less-careful users when they speak and write, just as less-careful users understand more-careful ones.

What I Mean by “Grammar”

This is a blog is about grammar, and so I should start with a working definition of what I mean by this word.

Grammar is the set of conventions that determine how the sentences of a language are constructed. Grammar refers to the choice, formation, sequence, spelling, and combination of words to form sentences generally accepted as linguistically correct.

Instinctive grammar. All users of English—or of any other language, including American Sign Language—routinely use grammar. In our own first language (what linguists call L1), we use grammar instinctively when we speak. We learn (or technically we acquire) the grammar of our first language by hearing it at home and producing gradually improving approximations of grammatical oral language by ourselves and with the help of others.

This process is automatic. By the time we are around 6, our oral fluency (specifically, our automatic use of standard grammar and vocabulary) is better than that of the average college student who has been struggling to learn our language for years. Way better.

Those annoying French schoolchildren.The first time I visited France, I remember feeling chagrin (no—more than that—resentment) every time I heard little French schoolchildren speaking without fear or failure the language in which, after years of sincere effort, I could barely manage to produce ghastly, halting, imbecilic sounds. I have since gotten used to it: There is no way around this phenomenon.

The thing is that, as native speakers, we pretty much can’t help learning to speak and understand our native language with comfort and fluency. We can’t help internalizing the grammar of our own language. This doesn’t mean that we know the “rules” of standard grammar; it means that we can recognize if a given sentence is grossly ungrammatical or generally grammatical. And we can spot non-native grammar from a half-mile away.

Imagine you and I are talking and I say “Me gets hungry. Come with I so food gets we can.” You will know immediately that I am either a singularly inept non-native speaker of English or joking.

Poetry by Heart

I heard a story the other day on NPR about a competition in the U.K., called Poetry by Heart, for students between 10 and 13 years of age. Entrants demonstrate their skill in memorizing (or memorising, as the Brits have it) poems by reciting them aloud before judges.

Participants draw their poems from a specially selected Poetry by Heart anthology, choosing one pre-1914 and one post-1914 poem. (Seemingly, if you published your poem exactly in 1914, you’re out of luck, but I’m sure this can’t be the case.)

Contestants are judged on physical presence (meaning things like body language, I think, not mere corporeality), voice and articulation, dramatic appropriateness, level of difficulty, evidence of understanding, and overall performance, plus a separate score for accuracy. These criteria underscore the determination of the sponsors to distinguish recitation “by heart” from recitation “by rote.” As the official website (http://www.poetrybyheart.org.uk) says: “Poetry By Heart is about ‘heart’, about loving a poem, inhabiting it, wanting it to become a part of you, and about having a lifelong relationship with words and meaning.”

This story made me think of my school days in the last century (Ugh! Never thought I’d be saying that!). I recall having to memorize in elementary school several poems that I am fairly certain are not taught anymore—poems like Joyce Kilmer’s Trees (“I think that I shall never see/A poem lovely as a tree.”) and John Greenleaf Whittier’s The Barefoot Boy (“Blessings on thee, little man,/Barefoot boy with cheek of tan!”).

Later, in high school, the assigned poems included Shakespearean soliloquies (“Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,” “The quality of mercy is not strained,” and “To be or not to be” among them) and sonnets (‘Let me not to the marriage of true minds/Admit impediments”). I also recall memorizing some Keats (Ode on a Grecian Urn, On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer), Shelley (Ozymandias), Wordsworth (I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud), Yeats (“Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths”), Frost (Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, The Road Not Taken), A. E. Housman (To an Athlete Dying Young), Dylan Thomas (A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London), and many others. Since mine was a Jesuit high school, we were also assigned a fair number of poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins (I can still dredge up some of God’s Grandeur, Pied Beauty, and The Windhover).

The practice of formal, routine memorization and recitation of poetry has largely gone out of favor. Two trends in contemporary education militate against it. The first is a horror of rote learning, meaning that requiring students to memorize anything, even multiplication tables, seems to be considered by many educators pedagogically questionable. And the second is a loss of faith in the traditional canon of literature in English, including the dead white poets who populate both my elementary school and high school lists.

The emphasis on creativity over rote recital is mostly wise, and the expansion of the sources of literature even wiser; but I think the de-emphasis on memorization and recitation is a loss. There should, in my opinion, be a place—beyond the drama club and the debate society—for the recitation of poetry (or artful prose, for that matter) in the school curriculum. And if the pool of literature from which excerpts for recitation are drawn is expanded to include modern writers from diverse backgrounds, so much the better.

The act of memorizing was always a bit of a challenge for me, but I never resented it. Mostly, I would accomplish the task during my hour-long subway ride home after school (from midtown Manhattan to the south end of Brooklyn), with final oral polishing in my home bathroom. As for the quality of my recitations, I’m not sure I would have scored high on any of the Poetry by Heart criteria except accuracy; I don’t remember putting much thought into dramatic appropriateness, voice, or performance—and body language was pretty much ruled out by our having to deliver our recitations while standing rigidly by our desks.

All in all, I think poetry recitation was a good thing. It may indeed have given mental exercise to my otherwise lazy mind, as was the touted goal, but what it unquestionably did, at least for me, was implant in my head many uniquely expressive, eloquent, and affecting phrases, sentences, and passages that I would never have spontaneously generated. These remain there like treasured antiquities that I take down from their dusty shelves now and again; and every time I do, they evoke affection and awe.

What This Blog Is

Recreational space

This blog is a recreational space for the informal discussion of language.

This blog is intended to be not a classroom but a playground, in which I invite my readers (should I gain any) to play. My intent is to offer an interactive, informal space for discussing language (primarily the American English variety, but others are welcome too), including questions of grammar and recent linguistic trends and developments. Perhaps we can even come to a tentative agreement on some of the more vexatious issues facing careful users of English today.

I offer this as a place to discuss questions such as these:

  • Are split infinitives really all that bad?
  • Is there a reasonable alternative to the inelegant his or her construction in a culture rightly concerned about gender equality?
  • What is the best way to pronounce—in an English oral sentence—foreign words and phrases that have entered, or are entering, the English language? Is there a rule of thumb that prevents, on the one hand, a tone-deaf disrespect for other languages and, on the other, pedantry?
  • Should we simply give up on the word whom, and should we admit defeat when faced with the confusion surrounding the words whoever and whomever?
  • Is there a way to help people understand the use of apostrophes, quotation marks, and other threatened or abused marks of punctuation?

Maybe this will even be a place to go beyond words in isolation and to argue the relative merits of, say, cryptic vs. traditional American crosswords, or to converse about the differences between British and American detective stories, or to swap recommendations for interesting books (or blogs) to read.

In short, what this blog turns into some months out will be, I hope, a mutual project involving its readers and its primary author.