GRAMMAR POWER (from Fall 2006)
Ask any writer, and he or she will admit to a lifelong love affair with words. Admittedly, I was a late bloomer. My parents say that when I was a toddler, it took me so long to begin speaking that they worried I was developmentally impaired, especially compared to my loquacious brother. I was an early stranger to words, but now we are on intimate terms. I love the sounds and meanings of words, and especially the marvelous possibilities of their juxtaposition in sentences. In clinical terms, I love etymology, diction, syntax, and grammar.
So imagine my surprise, when I became a high school English teacher this past year, at finding that my passion for the English language is not shared by 95% of my students. I had assumed, naively, that my own enthusiasm would magically transfer to their curious young minds. It didn’t take me many 55-minute class sessions to realize that I was mistaken. Grammar made my students groan.
Grammar, defined by the American Heritage Dictionary as “the study of how words and their component parts combine to form sentences”, is apparently not as appealing to teenagers as, say, “The O.C.” But grammar figures prominently on my course syllabi, and so my job is to chop up the sumptuous feast of grammar into manageable, delectable bites.
“No iron can pierce the heart with such force as a period put just at the right place,” noted the Russian writer Isaac Babel, itself a sentence so surgically elegant that it pierces my heart, and with which I completely agree. But the intricacies of punctuation fail to captivate the imagination of my students. They may learn it, but they don’t like it. As a teacher, I find I must be satisfied if they understand and can apply the rules. As a writer, though, I want them to seethe nebulous loveliness of the semicolon, to hearthe bridging call of the colon, to tastethe trailing sweetness of the ellipses.
Instead, I hear a lot of this: “Why do we have to learn this boring stuff?” And this: “Who cares about this stuff?” And, most maddeningly, this: “My parents say they never use, like, gerundsand stuff.” For students and their parents, therefore, I feel I must endeavor to provide some helpful answers to these questions.
The short answer to the first question is that you have to learn this boring stuff because you will be tested on this boring stuff. In the present scheme of education, test scores matter, to your future, to your school’s future, and to your teacher’s future. But more than that, in the long view, knowing when a sentence is grammatical, or how to fix one that is ungrammatical, is the mark of an educated, thinking person. Grammar comes instinctively to some people. “Grammar is a piano I play by ear. All I know about grammar is its power,” wrote Joan Didion, which is fine if you can write like Joan Didion. But to play on with the piano metaphor, most of us cannot play by ear, and need rather to learn to read music in order to play the piano with any degree of competence. Grammar is the collection of notes that make a song. If you don’t know the notes, the song of the sentence suffers from your incompetence. Certainly great writing relies on more than good grammar. But good grammar is a start.
The second question’s answer is: lots of people. Not only writers and teachers care about grammar. Following is a list of some of the people in the world who will care about your grammar: the people who will decide whether to admit you to a particular university, the people who will hire you when you apply for a job, the people who will promote you in your chosen career, and, in rare cases, the person who will agree to marry you and have grammatical children with you. It matters in most areas of adult life that you know how to speak and write correctly, and that the first impression you give of your literacy is a positive one. Solid communication skills are essential to success in most fields, perhaps all fields.
As for the third question, I’d like to say this just once to all parents: Never say you don’t use something.Your affirmation of your child’s complaint is a teacher’s nightmare. Before I was a teacher, I was guilty of saying this to my daughters about things like quadratic equations and the periodic table. But I have regretted my dismissive attitude. I have learned to shut up, because there is no good that comes from poisoning a young mind against a new or difficult concept, from discouraging children from being well-rounded. I don’t really know what my children are going to use in their adult lives. As far as grammar goes, maybe you don’t use it consciously, but I assure you that you use it. Even if you don’t remember what a gerund is, you at least know how to look it up. You know that there is a right way and a wrong way to say something, even as there are many ways to say something.
Popular culture can be stubbornly ungrammatical, but we adults must not simply throw up our hands and give up when confronted with the linguistic apathy of our young people. Our language is a living thing that we bequeath to the next generation. Let us handle it gently but firmly as we place it in our children’s hands. Our language will grow and change, as it has done through the centuries, but only if we show our children how to care for it, how to let it breathe.