I, by no means, consider myself a grammarian. Oh, wait, but I’m the composition teacher, right? Right. Which means I can’t get away with ignoring my ignorance. That worked for a while; in grad school I would not, did not, register for graduate level English Grammar. Can you imagine such a course? I mean, such a course assumes you have been studying principles of grammar for the previous sixteen or so years of your life. I felt out of the loop.
To this day, I cannot remember one grammar lesson, a real-life scene of grammar instruction, from K-12 school. I blame this on the overcrowded public schools I attended. They were “good” schools on paper, but there were so many of us they had to chop us into groups for instruction. I remember being immediately shuffled into the top ‘reading group’ in kindergarten because I could already read; kindergarten is the first time I experienced boredom outside my house. In eighth grade I was one of six students, out of a class of about three hundred and fifty, in an accelerated English course. By that point I could read and write well enough, and still didn’t know anything about mechanics or grammar–or, at least how to talk about such things. Eighth-grade English consisted of reading really good books, talking about them, and playing many games of hearts. I never once had to diagram a sentence.
Several things have encouraged me to tackle this previously avoided subject: one, the most base human desire not to embarrass myself; two, my partner; three, to excel at writing instruction. One is self-explanatory, and it ties into two. My partner’s education varies from mine; he had a militaristic education in principles of grammar, among other things. I can’t count the number of times some curious soul at a party has asked me something along the lines of what is up with the whole split infinitive thing? and I’m like, go ask that guy, he knows. I often ask him for writing advice. I still do silly things on paper. We all have bad habits. The fact that I am a writing instructor does not exclude me from misplacing modifiers, flinging around clichés, or committing other various sins of weak writing. This is what revision is for–for fixing things that are not quite as they should be, not the clearest and most precise.
In “On Language: Part II” I will express my love for Grammar Girl, as well as outline how I use Grammar Girl in the composition classroom.