Tuesday, July 28, 2015


In spite of all the fuss about “post-modern” and “sub-text” and seeing a culture from inside its speech and thought, most people have never mastered simple grammar.  It’s a lot easier and more relevant to ordinary life than computer code or learning the assumptions of an on-line game, but the last time I tried to teach in 2003, the only teacher in the building who knew anything at all about grammar was the teacher of French.

If you say “diagramming” in polite groups, a shudder will run around the room.  Why is this?  I think it is partly because grammar is confused with “usage” which is class-tied, propriety-based, and usually conveyed as scolding.  It is seen as a hindrance to “writing” which is a matter of pouring out one’s guts and passions onto paper, a practice which soon turns messy and can lead to writer's block.

I was fortunate to have a bow-legged red-headed Irishwoman, Agnes Carter, for 8th grade English -- back in the day when Portland, OR, was considered a model of white-gloved boring gray life.  I DID wear white gloves and a hat downtown, even when I was nine.  It seemed like proper dressing-up.  In the many decades since then I have NEVER thrown a dildo up to dangle from powerlines, even though in some jobs I was interacting with an underclass that mixed sex with violence, animals with humans.

Miss Carter made us memorize two lists of small but crucial words: one was the prepositions and one was the linking verbs.  I mean, her former students can recite them in their sleep:  be, am, is, are, was, were been, have, has, had, do, does, did, could, would, should, must, might.

She taught us to dissect a sentence as systematically as a hawk eating a rodent:  first tear out the guts (verbs), then find the muscles (prepositional, participial, gerunds, appositives), discard the skin (adverbs and adjectives) and then swallow the head (subject, object, indirect object).  It will be neat and bloodless.

But then the school year ended.  In college everyone kept talking about rhetoric and semantics and linguistics -- always ICK, er, IC.  I never could get a grip on it until decades later I found a book about “rhetorical grammar.”  Suddenly I knew what Richard Stern and Peter Matthiessen always talked about: the arrangement of sentences into elegant sense.  This is not relevant to some kinds of writing, but it was information that I’d needed myself.  Stern used to get exasperated and tell me my sentences were inside out.  Now I see that he meant I was not presenting the information and relationships that a close reader needs in the order that they need it.  Instead, I was writing down the elements as they occurred to me, sometimes leaving holes, because I knew what I meant.

The missing information, the part of grammar after the 8th grade, was the ability to convert prepositions to appositives or even to a single adjective, to  swap participles for dependent clauses, to condense, transform, remove, and augment the order and relationship of whole phrases.  THAT’s what makes an author able to control a sentence.  

It can take you to high places.

But it is dependent on good thinking.  Sentences get snarled because of not being sure what it is that’s being said.  Which is the most important part of the argument?  What sensory metaphor controls all the rest?  Where does the logic sequence start and end?

Knowing grammar on this level does not mean obsessing about obeying the rules.  There are no rules on the order of “i after e” or where to put commas.  The only rule or guide is the goal of the specific writing -- is it intelligible, does it convey the feeling?  It’s perfectly possible and legitimate to just write everyoldwhichway until getting to clarity of thought.  Revising is the thing to do, but you can't revise unless you write SOMETHING down.

You know webbing?  It's a form of diagramming but not about grammar -- about ideas.    

There’s no need to obsess over the rules.  It’s more like bird-watching.  When you learn to recognize one, then you see them all the time.  A noun clause is not harder to recognize than a robin, but identifying one is partly knowing the place they're likely to be -- you won’t see a robin swimming or down a hole.  But if you’re using the metaphor of birds on the line, an idea that’s going around due to Anne LaMott’s book of that name, then it matters what order they perch in.  (Remember that a preposition without an object becomes an adverb.)   

Adjectives in all their forms: words, prepositional phrases, participles and subordinate clauses, come just before the noun they modify.  (Modify: add more characteristics so as to be more specific.)  Appositives come just after the noun they modify because they are basically restatements of the same thing.  Gerunds act like nouns.

Adverbs in every form: words, prepositional phrases, participles and subordinate clauses can come anywhere in a sentence except for adverbs that modify adjectives -- then they act like adjectives.  (They are usually “intensifiers” like “very.”)

Just ignore this information until you get so you can “see” and “hear” (written language is always derived from spoken language) the words, prepositional phrases, participles, subordinate clauses.  Just do what comes naturally because you already know this stuff -- it’s just not conscious.  There's an awkward phase when you make a transition from the instinctive to the deliberate.

The biggest mistake school-minded people make is that schools only teach the conscious, but brains are mostly subconscious.  Got that?  MOSTLY SUBCONSCIOUS !!  This means that good teachers are simply revealing to you what you already know.

But don’t mislead yourself into believing that introspection is the key to reality and that your own subjective speculations and feelings are any kind of reality.  Nor are they unique.  If your time and place are the same as someone else’s, your construction of reality is likely to be similar.  If you are unique, you will need to work at grammar a little more to get your ideas across, because words can wander all over the landscape.

Diagramming chess strategy

Our formal culture, derived from English school talk heavily influenced by Latin, is nothing at all like street and neighborhood talk.  Even our informal writing is cautious, over-genteel, full of qualifiers and modifiers to the point of confusion, and often it's passive.  If you see a sentence that begins with “there,” kill it.  If you see the adjective “beautiful” trample it underfoot.  If you see the adverb “very”, wring its neck.  If you feel it's necessary, ignore this advice.

In junior high I loved diagramming as though it were crossword puzzles.  I could see the relationships between the words, what should dangle from what, but I didn’t know what to do about it.  The fancier, more elegant, game is chess, structuring interaction, patterning sentences, getting the birds arranged on the line.  But there are flaws: chess is adversarial.  Grammar is not.

More another time.

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