Posted by: suekenney | July 27, 2017

A Grammarian’s Tale

As a lifelong reader, a former English teacher and now a part-time freelance editor, I am very much involved with language.  Over the years since I first began teaching, many of my ideas and preconceptions about language, particularly English, have changed — some of them drastically.

I honestly don’t remember learning much about grammar when I was in grade school, although it must have happened somewhere along the line.  What stands out from that dim era of history is diagramming sentences.  Yeah, that’s right — drawing all those crazy little lines, horizontal and slanted and vertical, and fitting every word from a gruesomely long sentence into all the proper places.  I got pretty adept at it; I even (how crazy/nerdy can you be?) enjoyed it.

When I came into the role of teacher (at a very small church school with very small classes), we used primarily the ABeka curriculum, which is insistently strict on grammar — “prescriptivist,” as a linguist might say.  As a new teacher, I stuck to their program.  My students got English grammar rules dinned into their heads regularly and often.  Most of the time I thought it was a losing cause; what I taught one week would be forgotten the next, particularly on quizzes or tests.  At various times in my career at that school, I taught every grade level from kindergarten to twelfth grade.  In all my years there (around fifteen), I had very few students who were really good at grammar (yes, I admit that may be more of a reflection on my teaching ability), and maybe only one or two who actually enjoyed it.

I stopped teaching, and wondered for many years if all that effort put into teaching nouns and verbs, prepositions and interjections, clauses and phrases, active voice and passive voice, et al., had really been worth it.  English is such a flexible language, borrowing from here, there, and everywhere, with multitudinous dialects — were there any grammar rules that applied across the board?  Was learning grammar even necessary anymore?

Then I started hearing back from some of my students who had moved on to a different high school, or to college, or to a job.   One young man, still in high school at the time, and incidentally not one of my better English students, was pleased that he knew more grammar than anyone else in his class at his new school.  A young lady actually thanked me for the rigorous background in grammar because it was helping her to write better papers in college.  Another young man had a similar experience, and once he got into graduate school and beyond, where a higher percentage of the tests were essays and not multiple choice, that knowledge of grammar enabled him to write some of the best answers and essays in his various classes.  He has often been complimented on his writing ability.

Am I patting myself on the back for my great teaching?  Hardly — I know very well how many mistakes I made over the years.  I credit my students for picking it up in spite of me.  Am I saying that a solid knowledge of grammar is what makes you a good writer?  No.  But it sure helps!   (Excuse me — “surely helps!”)   I find, however, that I am moving away, slowly, inexorably, from the notion that every grammar rule should be strictly adhered to in every instance.  Or even (traitorous!) that every grammar rule I learned was correct.

For instance, one of the rules I learned over the years, which I tried to pass on to my students, was never to split an infinitive (to + a verb).  What, then, of Star Trek‘s “to boldly go where no man has gone before”?  To my ears, saying “to go boldly” or “boldly to go” doesn’t sound right.  Perhaps it’s just that  I’ve heard it said only one way for so many years.  But there is a certain rhythm in “to boldly go” that is more pleasing to my ear than the rhythm of the other two. Why?  “To boldly go where no man has gone before” is very nearly perfect iambic pentameter — which is what Shakespeare commonly wrote in — and who can beat Shakespeare as a genius of language usage?

That’s only one example among dozens.  I still believe in using rules (otherwise I’d make a lousy editor), but not as fanatically as I used to.  Grammar rules, spelling, and other language-related topics are evolving on a daily basis.  We need to find that elusive but vital balance between grammatical authoritarianism and nearly incomprehensible gobbledygook.  Make yourself understood, but take full advantage of the incredible malleability of the English language.


  1. Hi Sue – so pleased to see you back! Have you taken a break from blogging or been blogging somewhere else? I missed you.

  2. Took a break from blogging for a while as life got in the way. Hoping to be back on a more regular basis. Thanks for the welcome back!

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