Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Grammar Police, Winston Churchill and Me

Instead of grammar rules, let's focus on grammar tools

Thanks to my friend and fellow blogger, Dave Raudenbush,  for pointing out that today is National Grammar Day. I went to the web site for National Grammar Day and found it apparently dedicated, not so much to good grammar, as to good old American hucksterism. The site is there mostly to sell the sponsors' books and t-shirts. See what I did there, grammar fans? "Sponsors'" with an apostrophe after the "s" indicates more than one and that is what I mean to say. The site did point me to some handy grammar tips from "Grammar Girl", so you might want to check it out.

My favorite grammar story comes from Winston Churchill. Besides being the Prime Minister of England and one of the great political leaders of the twentieth century, Churchill was a notable writer. His histories of World War II are still considered must reading for historians. The story goes that once some cheeky editor suggested changes to a Churchill manuscript, because it contained, horror of horrors, a preposition at the end of a sentence. Churchill responded to this red pen wielding upstart with the following: "Your suggestion that I edit this sentence is a bit of impertinence up with which I shall not put."

I have since learned that the story may be apocryphal, but true or not, the tale illustrates an important point. Much of what we are taught as the rules of grammar are simply not rules. There is no reason to avoid ending a sentence with a preposition, unless adding the preposition is redundant as in "Where are you at?", which is incorrect because "Where are you?" carries the same meaning. However, as the Churchill story illustrates, avoiding a preposition at the end of a sentence can lead to awkward construction. Prepositions at the end of a sentence is something we should all be able to put up with:).

Those eagle-eyed grammarians out there may have noticed that I used "however" to begin a sentence in the last paragraph. My seventh grade English teacher, Mrs. McGarry, would be appalled. But this is another of those grammar rules we all have been taught that simply are not true. Beginning a sentence with a coordinating conjunction is perfectly grammatical. Here is what the Chicago Style Manual has to say on the subject.

There is a widespread belief—one with no historical or grammatical foundation—that it is an error to begin a sentence with a conjunction such as and, but or so. In fact, a substantial percentage (often as many as 10 percent) of the sentences in first-rate writing begin with conjunctions. It has been so for centuries, and even the most conservative grammarians have followed this practice.

Grammarians speculate that long ago teachers noticed that students tended to overuse "and" or "but" at the beginning of sentences and so they banned the practice. Apparently, teachers have repeated this false "rule" over the following years, decades and centuries.

There is one grammar error that I keep hearing and which drives me batty. I am referring to the incorrect use of the word "myself" as a substitute for "me." For example, "The boss wants to meet with John and myself." The correct usage is, of course, "The boss wants to meet with John and me." "Myself" is a reflexive pronoun that is used only in conjunction with the pronoun "I." So it is correct to say, "I did it all by myself",  or "I myself completed the task. "Myself" has become so ubiquitous as a substitute for "me", that when I use "me" correctly in a sentence, I get the distinct impression that people think I've gotten it wrong myself. Please, don't blame me.

In general, as teachers, I think we should avoid teaching grammar as a set of rules and start to teach it as a set of tools for the writer. Writers manipulate grammar for their own purposes all the time. Here is a paragraph from the Cynthia Rylant story, "My Grandmother's Hair."

We talked of many things as I combed her fine hair. Our talk was quiet, and it had to do with those things we both knew about: cats, baking-powder biscuits, Sunday school class.  Mrs. Epperly's big bull. Cherry picking. The striped red dress Aunt Violet sent me.

Wow, three sentence fragments in a row. Why does Rylant do this? I would speculate that Rylant liked the rhythm created here. It helps to create the tone of nostalgia and reminiscence that the story carries forward. My seventh grade teacher, Mrs. McGarry, would have bled all over this paragraph with her red pen had I turned it in, but as we see, great writers manipulate grammar to their purposes.

I know what you are thinking, "It's OK for Rylant to break the rules, because she knows what the rules are, but kids need to learn the rules first." I am not so sure. What better way to learn the difference between a complete sentence and a fragment than to actually use fragments and complete sentences in our writing and then talk about them as choices a writer makes?

For a wonderful book on teaching grammar as a tool for writers, I recommend Image Grammar by Harry Noden. The book is out of print now, but still available at used book stores. There is also an online resource companion to the book that you can find here.

If we can engage our student writers in conversations about grammatical choices, rather than trying to inculcate them with grammar rules, I think we have a better chance of creating writers who learn the rules, and learn to bend them, along the way.

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