Friday, October 12, 2012

Have I Got a Preposition For You

Oh, sweet dancing monkeys on a stick – they’re teaching grammar to Tabitha down at Mighty Clever Guy Middle School.  This means that I have officially reached the point where I am unable to help her with her homework anymore.

I like grammar.  Really, I do.  I use it all the time.  I insist on it when people speak to me and write things for my perusal, and I judge people who fall short of that standard.  Contrary to what you may have heard out there on the internet, grammar is not about adhering to every little rule that has ever come down the pike and been thrown out there in someone’s English class for you to follow.  It’s about writing clearly, speaking clearly, and thinking clearly.  It has been my experience that exterior communication generally mirrors internal processing, and if the one is muddled and incoherent so too is the other.

If other people have to stop and decode what you’re trying to say, chances are it’s not worth hearing.

That is my standard of grammar.  I don’t always follow the rules to the last jot and tittle – I have a weakness for dashes in the middle of sentences, for example.  And I like to start sentences with conjunctions.  Also, fragments.  I am aware of these things, though, and I do them for the specific effects they create.  I try not to let them interfere with my main purpose, however - whatever else you care to say about my writing, speaking and thinking, it is clear.

Just don’t ask me what anything is called.

There is a gaping big hole in my education where the names of the various parts of speech and grammatical tricks and gimmicks ought to be.  I have never diagrammed a sentence.  Indeed, once you get beyond the material found in School House Rock it all blends together in my head – and even some of that material is just a catchy tune and some great animation, as far as I can tell.  It took me years to figure out what the difference between a transitive and an intransitive verb was, officially, and I’m still not entirely sure what a predicate does, Mr. Morton notwithstanding.

I can use those things in my writing, and use them correctly.  But ask me to explain exactly how I know these things and most likely all you’ll get out of me is a vague sort of hand-waving and a general pushing off of the request onto someone else.

At least that’s what happened when Tabitha tried it.

She had some English (excuse me: Communication Arts – they’re hip to the jargon down at MCGMS) homework this week all about adverbial prepositions or prepositional adverbs or predatory albinos or whatever they were.  Basically she had to write an essay and identify these sorts of things wherever they appeared.  She asked me to check it over for her when she was done.

This turned out to be a mistake on her part.

I could tell where things were grammatically written or not grammatically written.  I could even make improvements on bits of writing here and there.  But naming the pieces of speech?  Go talk to your mother, kid.

Oh well.

Maybe she’ll have some history homework I can help her with sometime soon.


Kathleen Rehder said...

So so so true. I am a bit of a grammar junkie; I edited publications for years. But I have never diagrammed a sentence, and could not tell you what a dangling participle is, though I like the sound of it.

Gristle McThornbody said...

Oh, a topic near and dear to my heart! I do general transcription, which is just what it sounds like: a lot of thesis interviews on various subjects, oral family histories, seminars, et cetera, et cetera. I have just about given MS Word a nervous breakdown as I faithfully transcribe the word salad that comes out of people's mouths as they speak. In conversation we all do it. We trail off, switch tense in mid sentence, switch our train of thought in mid sentence or even mid-word, and more people end sentences with prepositions than you can shake a stick at ;) Fine. I can use ellipses and em dashes with the best of them and will punctuate the crap out of whatever comes my way and make it readable.

But what will set me back in my chair in awe is when someone uses perfectly good English words that I have never heard used in my life. I have a fairly decent vocabulary but I'm finishing up a transcript in which over the course of 7 hours the guy has used three words I have never, ever heard before. And these aren't cryptic terms specific to a particular field.

But all that said, I'm with you - I couldn't diagram a sentence to save my life, and when I need to refer to my Manual of Style and they start talking about modifying intransitive verbs or adverbs with past-participle adjectives or future perfect tense I laugh and laugh and laugh and just go with my gut.

Janiece said...

I find it amusing that grammatical assistance in your house must come from the physical scientist and not the liberal arts professor. Hee.

David said...

Janiece - of course that's how it works. Scientists are great at breaking things down to component pieces. We liberal arts types just use the stuff. Grammar is like a car that way. ;)

Jeri - I used to work with depositions back when I was temping as a paralegal and I remember that word salad. It is fun when people spring a good word on you, though.

Kathleen - I always thought a dangling participle was rather suggestive. Grammar can be sexy, can't it?

John the Scientist said...

You know, I do love grammar and diagraming sentences. You konw where that really came in handy? Learning a highly inflected foreign language (Russian). Case endings make a lot of sense if you can pinpoint grammatical structures in English and then see how that transmogrifies into cases.

It also helped in decifering a non SVO topic-oriented language (Japanese). Does didly squat for Chinese, though.

Liguistics - the how and why language works part of it, is still near and dear to my heart (and what I would have gotten a Ph.D. in if pomo had not inflitrated the MLA right at the point I was deciding between Chemistry and Slavic Linguistics).

Carol Elaine said...

David, I've diagrammed a sentence, been able to tell predicate from subject (using traditional grammar rules from my 70s-80s education), scored well on conjunctions and all that stuff.

However, my grammar education days are so far behind me that, while I know I tend to write pretty clearly (despite my over-fondness for parentheses, em-dashes, commas and the resultant runaway thoughts), I'll be damned if I can tell you why.

Even worse, I know there are times that I'm using certain prepositions completely incorrectly, but I haven't got the foggiest idea which preposition is the right one to use.

It's a good thing I'm not Tabitha's teacher. Or anyone else's, for that matter.

Phiala said...

May I recommend _The Transitive Vampire_ for all your general grammar and blood-sucking needs?

Anonymous said...

BY the way, they are ADVERB PREPOSITIONS! NOT predatory albinos! Tabby Typing

Susan I said...

One time I was subjected to listening to a woman, who was obviously vastly superior to a good many people, ranting about those who end sentences in prepositional phrases. For the life of me, I couldn't figure out what was wrong with that. Sometimes it's essential for clarity. Take away the prepositional phrase from "It's under the table," and what are you left with?

David said...

Actually the book I've enjoyed most about grammar is "The Lexicographer's Dilemma: The Evolution of 'Proper' English from Shakespeare to South Park." And I don't just say that because the author is a friend of mine - it's a great read and a fascinating history of how that whole notion came about and continues to change.

And Susan, what you're left with is a sense of the futility of hard and fast grammatical rules.