Sunday, March 14, 2010

Laying Down Grammar Rules Makes Me Want to Lie Down and Cry

L.G.C. Smith

Grammar is not my strong suit. Despite, or perhaps because of, all those degrees in linguistics and years of teaching writing to college students, if someone said to me, "Quick! What's a dangling participle?" I would have to slink away, mortified and unable to muster a single word of explanation.

However, if I were handed a sentence with a dangling participle, I could explain why it doesn't work, and help you fix it -- without ever using the words 'dangling participle.' I maintain that because I learned to think of grammar as the whole syntax of a language, rath
er than as a small subset of usage preferences dictated by conscientious English teachers, I short-circuited the synapses that might have been devoted to remembering standard grammar lingo. Add to that the fact that grammar was not taught -- seriously -- in my secondary schooling, and it's all bad. I have to rely on aiming for meaning and overall effective communication.

This means observing the norms of standard grammatical usage more often than not, whether or not I know what to call things. Fortunately, grammar isn't a moral issue, though my language teaching grandmothers would have argued that. Unfortunately, blowing off grammatical norms will almost certainly annoy editors to the point of no return. We don't want to be that writer.

That said, some of the best writers I've ever worke
d with were predominately non-standard English speaking students at a tribal college in South Dakota. The majority of both the Lakota and white students in my classes spoke what's generally considered an 'uneducated' dialect. As with many lower status dialects, the regular grammatical features my students used are perceived by many as 'bad' grammar. I heard a lot more "I done it" than "I did it." "I seen" trumped "I saw" by eight to one or better. Yet when these students wrote, the power of their words and their critical analysis skills sparkled. Their voices were smart and strong, nuanced, and insightful. What looked like errors to some readers looked like regular, systematic grammatical differences to me. It was fun to talk about the differences and how much meaning could be altered by using standard versus non-standard grammatical choices.

Grammatical correctness is largely arbitrary because language is changing all the time. The sounds of words change as we slur over one sound, or add in a little something that didn't used to be there. We add and drop words. Grammar is the same. Always changing. Double negatives have a long, distinguished history in English, even though they've been deemed disreputable for a couple of hundred years. 'They' is increasingly being used as a singular pronoun to help speakers (and writers) avoid specifying gender, which the singular third person pronouns force.

There are, of course, some recent changes of which I don't approve. When did the preferred past tense form of the strong verb 'weave' cease to be 'wove?' What happened to 'crept' as the dominant past tense of 'creep?' 'Weaved' and 'creeped' have their contexts, but in my usage patterns, they're more limited (and less melodic) than 'wove' and 'crept." I like strong verbs (which is an old fashioned name for the irregular verbs in English that signal tense and aspect with vowel changes, or, the ones that don't use -ed endings for the simple past). They're a living link to the history of English. I don't want to lose them, even though they're clearly on their way out.

I find grammar most interesting when it tells me something about how language has changed and how it's changing now. I love to listen to young children wrestle ever more sophisticated concepts into the grammar their language offers. Grammar has its own stories to tell, and they stick in my head a lot better than the rules.

Quick! What's a periphrastic verb?


Adrienne Miller said...

"Grammar isn't a moral issue." -- I"m putting that on a T-shirt!

Beautiful post, Lynn.

Rachael Herron said...

This really is lovely. And it makes me think about all the other past tense verbs that are leaving us like leapt which this comment box is underlining as wrong. It's not wrong! Not wrong! And wove will ALWAYS be right.

Gigi Pandian said...

I'm thankful that even though I could not explain a participle to save my life, I seem to be able to use one properly most of the time. I'm glad you wouldn't have flunked me ;)

Sophie Littlefield said...

wait....grammar's not a moral issue????

LGC, this is only one of the many reasons you are on my stranded-on-a-desert island list. And I totally agree with the "I can tell you if it works, i just can't tell you why" thing. (except you're too modest - you do too know why. :)

L.G.C. Smith said...

I can't explain why using The Rules. I really don't know why those don't stick for me. takers on periphrastic verbs? Come on, people. You disappoint me. ;)