Sunday, November 11, 2012

On grammar...

Because I knew I was going to be a writer at a young age (I was 9 or 10 when my teacher told me I should be one because of a short story I'd written about bears. I thought she'd just given me my career and agreed with her), I paid attention when English teachers gave lessons about grammar.

Didn't understand them, but I paid attention.

At the end of our junior year here in NY State, all students must take an exam in English. At that time there was a section that might - or might not - ask grammatical questions. I remember my girlfriend, Mary Ann, sitting me down and drilling me on the parts of speech and showing me how to diagram a sentence, getting frustrated with me when I'd shrug my shoulders and give her a blank look.

None of it stuck and thankfully, there were no questions of that sort on the test. Which I ended up not having to take. But that's a story for a different post. :)

In college we studied "transformational grammar" and for the first time ever, why we put certain words in certain places in sentences began to make sense. Finally I understood the difference between a gerund and a verb, even though both looked exactly the same. I recognized the differences between past, present and future participles. Heck! I even knew what a participle was!

The old adage says you never learn something so thoroughly as when you have to teach it. Teaching grammar to 7th and 8th graders probably did nothing for them but it did everything for me. Looking at language through the lens of its grammar opened new ways of forming sentences, new ways of structuring arguments, and most importantly, new ways of telling a story.

Recently I had occasion to teach seniors the four sentence types. I actually wanted to teach comma placement, but we had to go back a step. Then, when I asked, offhandedly, really just wanting to bring the piece of knowledge back to the front of their brains, how many types of verbs there are - and they couldn't answer me - I ended up going back and teaching the parts of speech all over again.

It isn't that they haven't had it. It isn't as if no one's ever taught them this before. Yet, like my younger self, they find no meaning in it and so haven't really bothered to learn it. One of the boys asked me why we were waiting until they were seniors to teach this stuff. He felt it should be much earlier in the curriculum!

In any case, going through the basic rules of English grammar once more made me appreciate the structure all over again. It also made me glad I'm a native speaker. I can't imagine how hard this language would be to learn if I learned another language first. I am so impressed with those who learn to speak English later in life. You do what I could not.

Because my teacher told me I was going to be a writer, I understood those grammatical rules were something I needed to master. It took me years, but master them I did. Still don't know all their fancy names (adverbial clauses give me headaches), but using the tools of the language is part of my job.

And it's a job I love doing.

Play safe!
PS. I thought about making this part of the writing workshops, but really it's more of a personal reminiscence and philosophy statement about grammar. Be forewarned, however! Grammar will probably make an appearance in a future workshop. Or two. :)

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