Wednesday, April 25, 2018


--------------------------------------------------------------------- As is my practice and preference, I don’t teach writing the way anyone else does.  (Oh, yeah.  Except I don’t teach writing anymore — but I did once.)  I begin by teaching mechanics the way Miss Carter taught the 8th grade.

First learn the 8 parts of speech.  

Second, realize that adjectives always come just ahead of the nouns that they describe.  They answer questions like “what kind, what color, how many, what size, which one?”  They are defined by USE in regard to an object or a word used like an object (love, patriotism)  Understanding how a word is used is the biggest part of doing grammar.  If  ^*# is used as an adjective, that’s what it is.  In this instance ^*# is now an adjective.  No, it isn't.  Here it's used as a noun.  Second try as an adjective:  "That's a ^*# sweater.

Third, adverbs are trickier.  They can be anyplace in the sentence and will answer questions like “where, when, how fast, in what manner”.  (Lazily the dog turned.  The dog turned lazily.  The dog lazily turned.)  Learn to feel the differences when placement is different: the implications, the realizations.  How you want the reader to realize it.

Fourth: memorize all the linking verbs.  Don’t ask why.  Just do it.  If you go to the meeting of Miss Carter’s Class of 1953 (they have lunch in Portland monthly) and ask them to recite the linking verbs, they can though we're all getting close to fifty.  “be, am, is, are, was, were, been, do, does did, have, has, had, shall, will, may, can, must, might, could, would, should.”

Fifth: memorize all the prepositions.  “In, into, to, around, down, beyond, beside, between . . . “  You could make your own list because there are over 70, over 100, and Google will even give you a “popularity” chart.  When I taught the seventh grade, there was a poster of piggies at a fence all going “over, under, around, down, beside, between, etc.”  The main thing is that prepositions begin a phrase that ends in a noun or pronoun.  A “preposition” that doesn’t start a prepositional phrase is an adverb.  (He went in.  Tells where.)

In public school texts there is barely enough time in a year to learn the above, but the real payoff comes later in more complex phrases.  The key to English sentences is the noun/verb axis.  After that, most people don't learn enough grammar for it to mean anything.

Sometimes after the verb comes another noun that is the object — which the verb acts on — or the indirect object which the verb acts on in behalf of the subject.  All this stuff is abstract but indicated by word order which is usually in a row:  subject, verb, indirect object, object.  If you're talking, you already know this stuff in an unconscious way, but at a higher level you need the abstract ability to think of the category and use it as a handle rather than the word itself.  It's easier to change stuff around.

Etc.  All this stuff is in grammar textbooks.  If it’s English.  These last three words are an incomplete sentence because it begins with a big connector word:  if, and, so, but, etc.  Learn them by heart too while you’re at it.  There are few.

All languages have grammar.  If you are trying to learn the grammar of Blackfeet/foot, study German.  Also, think about what the world was like to those early people — to what did they pay attention?  (preposition, split verb with the subject in the middle, object).  How much did time and place and certain qualities really matter to them? 

When you get a good grip on all this double stuff (what you are saying/the uses of the words), you are in a position to grab a sentence, twirl it, bite it, pound it down flat, and make it sing.  Convert a prepositional phrase into a participle (a participle ends in “ing” or “ed”) or give it a gerund as object instead of a noun.  (They had a song.  They had singing.)  Don’t be afraid of strange — strange is good.  Strangefication.  Your computer won’t like it because keyboard technicians are nerds who learned via ESL.

The principle is to be “understandable,” helped by grammar, but slightly strange to make it new, make the reader think, suggest something that is not quite apparent.

Modern English doesn’t pay much attention to the adverbs, tenses and adverb prepositional phrases (once you’ve chunked the sentence into phrases the chunks act like single words)  because they are about timing and sequence which American English doesn’t value.  In America everything happens at once — NOW.  Or sooner.

I used to look through my favorite books, often with long complex sentences, like Matthiessen who loved to mess with sentences.  I’d find a sentence (no time or space to do it here), write down the sequence of parts and label them, then ask the students to convert one part-kind to another part-kind (like, participle to prepositional phrase maybe) or maybe to write a new sentence with parts of the same kind in the same order.  Once they could do that— which was sort of fun — they could write much more clearly.  And they were much more able to rewrite without worrying.  (Not all sentences that begin with connectors are partial if they have the subject/verb intact.  If they don’t, they just don’t.  It’s not Evil.)

But what’s crucial, what makes a real writer, is even deeper, a structure of ideas or at least events.  The big gears and wheels of the subconscious that power the whole enterprise. It was Richard Stern who taught me this, partly because of his love of irony and partly because he was so thoroughly Jewish Manhattan of a certain period, which meant he saw the world in a Procrustean way (chopping off bits that meant nothing to him and adding bits that made sense to him). His long storied history, so different from my own world-view — almost over-inclusive— that I became aware of it as a “thing.”  The irony part comes from understanding what something is supposed to be and expressing that it is not.  Kids get lost.

When Stern was selling big and hitting the lists, students abounded.  As soon as he was a little out of fashion, he was down to the four women of my class.  Almost cancelled.  He learned to like it.  The irony was that he had thought young snarky male Ph.D. candidates were a compliment to his value and the spine of being a high-class human.  He learned something different.  I wish he had written about it with insight.  I slammed him hard with a “dream” about writers in the context of Soviet cannibalism, each one flayed and hung on a rail-hook for later consumption, reduced to a carcass.  He got it.  It was real and it was ironically about the US, at least part of it.  He did not turn me away.

Now write your own damn way.  Damn is not currently a popular intensifier, but I don’t usually say “fucking” as an intensifying adjective or adverb.  When I use the word, I mean the act, as the word meant originally.

Usually, I don’t say “fucking.”
I usually don’t say “fucking.”
I don’t say “fucking” usually.
I don’t usually say “fucking.”
“Fucking is not a word I usually use.”
“To fuck” is a verb phrase.  
More usually, fuck is used as a verb with an object, as in
    “fuck grammar.”

Fucking is a word best used sparingly.
We never said that word in the 8th grade.  Miss Carter might have slapped us.  Anyway some of us didn't know yet what it meant.  What it meant yet.

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