Some mornings there is really no excuse for fussing about grammar and I resist. On other days, it just might keep slapping me in the face. I am not a grammarian and often have to look up rules. My understanding of these rules of grammar is the result of determined study after the age of forty.
In my youth, my understanding of grammar rested entirely on what sounded right.
If the verb tense or sentence structure sounds right, I generally assume it is correct. However, sound is a reliable model of proper speech only if it’s what has been heard growing up or has otherwise become habitual. I used to tell my students that if they grew up in an English-speaking household that consistently used formal register English they had an unearned advantage over students who had not. They should be grateful for their “ear” but not smug.
My childhood was financially modest but linguistically advantaged—that is, thanks to the G.I. bill, my only aunt (on my mother’s side) and my father both went to UofC, Berkeley, and both eventually completed masters degrees though no one else in their families had previously attended college. My parents often quoted Shakespeare and sang Gilbert and Sullivan lyrics. I heard proper English spoken as a child in my immediate family. That’s my luck.
What sounded right to me generally was correct. As a result, I never learned the rules of grammar, never bothered with any of that. A mistake. [I have always been a poor speller. Maybe the bad spelling is somehow connected to this? Arrogance? I used to warn my students about my poor spelling, which was nonetheless better than most of theirs. “If you see me misspell a word on the whiteboard,” I told my classes early in the school year, “go ahead and correct me. I will not be offended.” I modeled looking things up. As an adult, I worked hard to improve my spelling, and I still make mistakes, sometimes because of my poor hunt-and-peck typing and other times because I am just careless. I struggle with overuse of commas, I think, as a result of reading too much Victorian literature, which revels in them.] I read a great deal. I took two years of Latin in a public school and should have taken a third year, but it seemed at the time that even Cicero could not repay me for an entire year of Caesar’s Gallic Wars.
These days I still look up words and grammatical rules. I also occasionally add to a modest file of published errors. Here are a few:
“A man was seen with a gunshot wound laying motionless on the ground in the area near where the opposing groups had fought and where mace had been deployed.“—yesterday’s The Washington Post [“laying” should be “lying” Laying refers only to an action done to something. e.g. I was laying down the book, while I was lying down to read.]
“Thompson performed a driving maneuver that led Lewis’ vehicle to crash and came to a stop.“—NPR, 17 Aug 2020 [“crash and came” should be “crash and come”]
“They can make a child too listless to pay proper attention in school or so sick she misses many school days.”—NPR [If the author wants to avoid the growing gender-neutral use of “they” as a singular pronoun, there is still an easy fix: “They can make children too listless to pay proper attention in school or so sick they miss many school days.”]
“Good morning. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris made their debut as running mates. The British economy sunk into its deepest recession on record. And the QAnon conspiracy theory has found its way to the mainstream.”—The New York Times [I am fairly certain it should be “sank” unless they mean “has sunk,” which would also work in this context. I looked it up to be sure.]
“Her three decades of high-stress nursing was behind her.”—Goodreads novel blurb [“was” refers back to “three decades” and therefore should be “were”—though I might be wrong about that: “High-stress nursing was behind her.” “Her three decades were behind her.” To my ear the “of” makes the “high stress nursing” a modifier, not the subject. Dreyer might disagree.]
“Gaudí’s ambitious design originally featured 18 towers, including 12 for each of the biblical disciples, but as the Associated Press notes, it’s possible that some of these spires will never be erected.”—Smithsonian [I am certain the author does not mean there are twelve towers for each of the disciples. Aren’t I? “…including a tower for each of the twelve disciples.”]
“Martin Gugino, a 75-year-old protester, lays on the ground after he was shoved by two police officers in Buffalo, New York. Jamie Quinn, via Reuters”—TNYT photo caption [again, should be “lies”]
I note these things because I paid for access to most of these typos, because news published in mainstream media should be able to afford a proofreader/line editor, and because I cannot help myself. No, that’s not right: I choose not to stop myself from pointing them out. I believe I have an excuse for my errors, but refuse to grant The New York Times the same tolerance.
[An applicant for a position as Head Secretary at my school twenty or more years ago failed to get an interview because the current Head Secretary did not like having her three grammatical and spelling errors pointed out to her. She tossed the application. She was most indignant when she told me this.]
Again, I will reiterate that I am not a grammarian and I make mistakes all the time myself both here and in conversation. I have worked to achieve a technical understanding of grammatical rules because I was an English teacher for most of my professional life. I believe people should care enough about their jobs to continually work to be better at them. [I know what a “comma splice” is, how to explain the concept to my students, and why it should not make college professors and high school English teachers scream in fury, but that it does. That’s why they should avoid them.] No one likes errors pointed out to them. Well, most people don’t.
Someone did yesterday.
In my daily life I cling stubbornly to what sounds right and what sounds wrong to my ear, but I have studied the rules of grammar and I am willing to improve. Even now that I am retired. [And, no, that is not a complete sentence—incomplete sentences have been one of the feature of modern writing that I have learned to adjust to. And ending on a preposition too.]
For example, the word “boughten” sounds wrong to me. I have looked it up after finding it in a novel. Webster insists there is such a word, but I cringe to hear or read it. Boughten? ouch
I will also note the I could not find a way to change the color of my text (which is why I used bold above) or to indent a block of text (the other reason I used bold above), but just now I discovered how to do those things and how to wrap an image with text using this new editor—though I may have to figure it out all over again next time I want the effect.
Machinery does not come any more naturally to me than grammar. I have to work at it until I can internalize the process and it becomes habitual.
This morning I learned that I won a free book, PR for Poets by Jeannine Hall Gailey over at her blog. Her blog is a pleasure. She is a kind person who speaks forthrightly about her health struggles and generously about her fellow poets. I rarely think of myself as a poet, but I do read poetry and routinely compose in my head, and I have published poetry.
Poetry, in my life, has offered a strategy for organizing and crystalizing my life experience. A revelation of truth and connection. Poetry allows the world to rest here, just between my fingertips, just at the edge of my understanding. A fluttering demand to be recognized. A rare flighting bird.
Gailey’s book might be just what I need to rediscover my off-and-on-again daily poem habit.