A Grammar Cop Surrenders His Badge

When I began teaching several years ago, I modeled my behavior on the spectacular teachers I had known.

From those long years of my youth, when I wondered, like anyone stuck in a classroom, when I would be educated sufficiently and have my go at the “real” world–I remembered those instructors who, through skill, personality, bombast and revelatory brilliance, made me forget the hard desk, uncomfortable chair, bland colors, the ineptly erased chalkboard, the color-bleaching fluorescent lights, what other students were doing and what I might be eating for lunch in the next hour.

One teacher not only returned two, sometimes three typed, double-spaced pages of comments with my written assignments. He also line-edited my prose which, then as now, came out in bursts, with more attention paid to the expressive sparkle than the severity of compositional rectitude.

The typed, double spaced pages the flowed from my portable Smith Corona (eventually replaced by an black, wedge-shaped Olivetti electric) came back adorned with encircled worlds, question marks, and such terms as “misplaced modifier” or “inconsistent tenses” and, the most common of all, “awkward” with the occasional suggestion “revise.”

Such marks did not inspire me to become more careful about how my words tumbled out. They did not fill me with the urge for orderly precision that leads the typographically erring to master punctuation and spelling. If anything, such attention brought smarmy ridicule–“that fool spent more time marking up my work than I did writing it”–followed by despairing shame–“I made so many mistakes I’ll never become a writer because I don’t know how to write.”

This was before I spent some time apprenticed to a professional writer, where I learned of the existence of editors, who, as part of a job description that includes literary lunches at swank Manhattan bistros in which the editor spends more time talking to your agent than you, capriciously changing the title you agonized over for days, loping off entire pages of description and character development to make room for a magazine advertisement or to save money on paper, finding a hideous cover illustration that has absolutely nothing to do with what you wrote, coming up with a blurb or flap copy that does not in any way describe the book you wrote, and, finally, handing your work to a copy editor who will correct all those annoying composition mistakes.

Though some editors also write, most do not. The same creative divide that isolates restaurant chefs from the dining room servers, composers from performers, and film directors from everyone else, is necessary for art to find its audience and the audience to support the art.

That does not mean that people who are good at one thing can have the compassion to remember who they were when they weren’t so sure of themselves. When I humbly solicited my mentor’s opinion on my work, he shuddered at my spelling, yelled at me for not using the apostrophe correctly when writing the contraction of “it” and “is,  sputtered in rage about overuse of the passive voice and then threw my manuscript down on the floor, stomped on it, spat on it, crumpled it into a ball and threw it into the fireplace.

I did not show him any work again, and I was so traumatized that, for weeks, I stopped using contractions. At other times I was almost mute, because I had to think before speaking to make sure my tenses were consistent, I was using the active instead of the passive voice, my subjects and predicates were in agreement and my pronouns adequately modified their antecedents.

My apprenticeship ended with me returning to college and snarking at fellow students who used “kind of” and “sort of” instead of “nearly” and “almost.”  When someone said “this gets crazy” I replied “Get means to acquire or receive. How does this become mentally unstable?”

After a few months, I recognized that abusive grammar teachers perpetuate their abuse. An analogy is the sadistic, occasionally lethal hazing that goes on in college fraternities and military schools. Those who endure it and survive feel justified in tormenting the newbies because it’s all about tough love, right?

Wrong.

Correct usage, syntax, spelling and punctuation do not always bring clear and efficient writing,  though, I believe we can all agree that when everyone uses the same system to communicate, those “huh?” and “say what?” moments don’t occur quite so often.

Grammar is fundamentally about class. Our obsession with it can be dated to the 17th century as a movement among England’s rising middle class. Unlike the marginally literate aristocracy and royals, the wealthy spawn of merchants and industrialists wanted to distinguish themselves from the rabble from which they rose. An attempt was made (oops, passive voice!) to make formal English more similar to classical Latin. This was one more way to distinguish yourself and your background, prove that you belong, and demonstrate where you rank (or believe you should rank) in a social hierarchy.

If I must choose, I’d rather read an awkward, windy, dense or merely dull  sentence put together with good grammar, than a brilliant sentence incompetently written, because the grammar can act like a fog lamp. When the grammar is bad, you feel lost.

Bad grammar can have other consequences in the 21st century beyond the Twitter blurt. Though word processors contain grammar correction features, they don’t fix everything and letting a grammatical error slip into the workspace can rapidly become more than a faux pas. People who recognize the mistake will think you’re careless or sloppy, even if you’re not. They’ll tend to remember the mistake more than all the other good work you’ve done.

So “getting it right” isn’t about showing off in contemporary society, as it is about fitting in. Your prose must match the “style” of your publisher or employer. The New York Times has its own a way of using words and grammar. A Times editor once tortured me for an entire day over the placement of a comma.

What the Times thinks is right may be wrong for others. Some people believe bad grammar indicates you’re honest, unpretentious and direct. Clumsy, awkward prose may also be considered an act of rebellion in the tribal, slang-driven worlds of popular culture and social media, where bad is good and dope is better.

Of course, I didn’t “get” that until much later. What stayed with me, when I began to teach, was the enormous dedication of my professors who not only read and commented on my work, but identified composition errors, with the hope that I might recognize them and learn from them. I’m happy to say that I did, though it took a long time. Mastering grammar, like anything that requires patience, concentration and repetition, can become a metaphor for achievement.

When I learned the martial arts I had to repeat my punches and kicks thousands of times before I could begin to recognize what wasn’t working and how I could make them better. It’s the same with grammar. Accurate speech and writing is worth knowing, even if the path to that knowledge can be boring, frustrating and humiliating.

When I taught writing and journalism, the last thing I wanted was to intimidate students as my mentor had. Neither did I want to impose any of the “tough love” abuse. I wanted my students to understand that words were not merely tools that might get them what they want, but that they could be instruments of delight. You can be scary and funny with words. They can connect you to the sense of wonder.

While I inspired such connections to happen among my graduate and undergraduate students, I also line edited their prose, assuming that they would appreciate my efforts in the future, when, through practice, dedication and persistence, they would “get” English grammar sufficiently to reach that sunny state when you’re successful enough to have an editor fix the rest.

When I decided to return to high school to become the English teacher I wish I had, I took education courses to get a state teaching license. One of my teachers advised me to correct no more than one grammatical, spelling, usage or punctuation error per paragraph. Better yet–one per page. I should also use a pen or pencil with a different color than red, “because the color red brings out emotional connotations of right and wrong that we don’t want students to feel. The color blue can be even worse. Right now many English teachers are using purple. Purple is decorative, expressive and not so serious. Try purple.”

I did not point out that purple was the color of Roman emperors, whose thumbs infamously brought out emotional connotations at gladiator fights.

Instead I thought of the parents of students I might have. Some would know grammar well enough to see that, with five or fewer errors circled on a five-paragraph essay, I lacked the competence to identify the others.

Other parents in my school district had learned English as a second, third or fourth language. They would want their kids to be better at grammar than they were, so their kids would fit better into the American workplace and succeed.

So I reluctantly and compassionately taught English in a high school.  I came up with a way that, I hoped, students would learn from the more than five circled errors (in green, orange–anything but purple!) on their assignments. Rewrite, revise, show me that you improved the text, and your grade would go up.

This increased the amount of grading I had to do. I’m happy to say that some grades went up. I suspect, also, that some parents either wrote their kids’ papers or hired tutors to do so, because when I found mistake in those papers, the parents were quick to e-mail me and ask why I didn’t find the work as brilliant and ingenious as they did.

I also began to understand why my wife, who teaches high school science, gets punishing neck cramps from grading student work. I lasted three years at the high school.

I also created a writers group and I line edited there. The group has a few grammar cops, some of whom read Stephen King’s On Writing and share his contempt for adverbs. I happen to like adverbs. When someone in the group told a writer she had to eliminate her adverbs, I said, “really?”

The last time I was at the group I began line editing a submission and my hand became tired from holding the pen. Yes, there were numerous errors but, in identifying and correcting them, I asked myself if my efforts were genuinely helping the writer, whose intention was just to share a work in progress. When you’re doing a first draft, the most important thing is to write as much as you can, any way you can. Only when the first draft is finished should you examine critically what’s on the page, not to beat yourself up for not writing a perfect sentence, but to shape what you’ve done into something beautiful.

Most beautiful things have flaws, errors, rough spots, places where the touch-up paint didn’t quite stick but the full effect remains marvelous.

If any of those spots is becomes a bit too obvious, the universe permits the existence of editors, who just might make it all right.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

putting a real awful cover or illustration on your priceless piece of art, (I guess I don’t know how to write”) , punctuation premiers and, the most annoying of all, grammar cops.

 

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