Back in middle school, Mrs. Williams tried to force my young mind to shape itself around the proper use of language. But I was going to be a writer, dammit, and I didn’t need such conformity handed down by the man (even if she was a woman). Mrs. Williams mimeographed countless handouts on gerunds, base words, modifiers, infinitives, verb tenses and more I dutifully put in a three-ring binder. That binder was filled with illustrations, language maps, sentences parsed and diagrammed, stories, jokes, cartoons, tip and tricks – a culmination of her decades of teaching and reading and simply loving the English language in all its complexity. As she lectured I doodled on the cover of that stark white binder. (I don’t actually remember ever opening that binder. Through reading, I’d picked up enough familiarity with language to pass all the tests, even if I didn’t rightly know what a gerund was.)

On the last day of school some classmates and I emptied those binders and had ourselves a nice bonfire, the sparks carrying bits of her lovingly collected bits of knowledge across the busted chain link fence to the roofs of trailers next door. I cracked wise about the pages making better kindling than teaching.

Now, some 30 years later, my dreams of being a novelist haven’t quite panned out the way I planned, and I’m making my living ghost writing and editing for other people. My artistic pretentiousness doesn’t get me jobs, let alone checks. What brings me work is speed and precision – and that includes a passable understanding of grammar.

A few years back I heard that Mrs. Williams was still at Traner Middle School (a fact that did not compute, seeing as I thought her in her 60s back in my day). She’d been forced into retirement and had taken up volunteering in the lunch room just to continue being around students. Her name has always brought a queasy feeling of guilt and embarrassment over how much I could’ve learned and the ego that declared such learning irrelevant.

My editing has been accompanied by much scurrying as I’ve tried to learn basic English grammar as an adult. I’ve read dozens of books on the subject, followed blogs, listened to pod casts, read articles. But my default writing is still instinctual and partnering those instincts with actual knowledge has been an arduous, time-consuming task. I still find myself sometimes rewriting a sentence to avoid looking up a rule I know I should have down by now. And when I get called on a change, I go to my books so I can use the proper terms rather than babble about “yanno, when you have a to-be word followed by a word with an ing at the end?”

Despite all that, I type too fast, think too sloppily and tend toward typos that are still words – just the wrong ones. Anything you read of mine will have mistakes. I’m sure my editing overlooks errors as well. I’ve accepted this; it keeps the perfectionism at bay.

But, still and all, I wish I’d paid more attention in Mrs. Williams’ grammar class. I wish I’d savored her insights and experience. I wish I’d appreciated her patience in trying to beat is with the knowledge stick. I wish to hell I’d kept that white binder (doodles and all). And I hope I have a chance to tell her that one day.

Still, there are at least nine grammar rules that my brain just slips right over just about every time:

  1. Lay vs. Lie. I blame Bob Dylan and “Lay Lady Lay.” Dylan didn’t get it right, and he did just fine (and this argument might carry some weight if I were as good as Dylan).
  2. Affect vs. Effect. I can remember affectation because I’ve had a few, but past that? Um.
  3. When to use an ellipsis and when to use an em-dash when it comes to dialog. I know one is for when someone trails off; the other is for when the speaker is interrupted. As for which is which …
  4. Misplaced Modifiers. No freaking clue. I never realize I had modifiers, let alone left one by my car keys.
  5. Split Infinitives. My infinitives are most definitely swingers. Perhaps they could have a key party and pick up some of those modifiers I misplaced.
  6. Bad vs. Badly as an adjective. I have looked this up many times. I’ve heard it debated on TV. I feel bad about rejecting the ly at the end. I don’t like it. It sounds … weird to me. Perhaps that’s why I choose not to see any solidarity among the grammarians on this one.
  7. Whether or not it’s okay to start a sentence with and or but. I know this is a bad thing if I were writing a high school English paper or perhaps a scientific article. But for more casual writing? I like it.
  8. Compound Modifiers. I believe that any time you have two words that talk about the word that comes next and the first of those words in the description does not have an ly ending I’m supposed to use a hyphen between the first two. But if that’s true, why do my documents look like they’re edging toward a fill-in-the-blanks puzzle when I do it? Perhaps I have too many words hooking up at that key party.
  9. Commas after introductory clauses (that’s right, I used clause). How much is too much of an introduction before I need that comma? Is it just a matter of style? I know I tend to use commas like a teenage girl at a makeup sample counter, but I’m sure there are rules that could rein that in (and improve my skin).

All that confessed, here are my favorite grammar books. I do not mean my recommendations as rather dubious compliments (considering how many times I have to keep looking things up), but rather as high praise (considering how many times I go back to these particular tomes).

Category: 9, writing
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6 Responses
  1. Stef says:

    I loved Mrs. Williams! She was amazing. Me being me, I hung on every word and studied her diagrams with fervor! I’m the one who worked with her when I was the School Nurse at Traner. I think she was in her early 80s (about 12 years ago….), but still fantastic and full of piss and vinegar!

  2. forex robot says:

    great post as usual .. thanks .. you just gave me a few more ideas to play with

  3. Des says:

    a) you are SO not 42
    b) How long, young lady, has this affair with blogging been going on? I feel spurned, SPURNED I tell you!
    and 3: Love it!

  4. My misuse or (rightful use) of “Affect vs. Effect” on my blog marked the beginning of the end with one of my loyal commenters. Grammer? I make it up as I go along. I’m sure some of my readers (re; lit majors) cringe, but they’re good sports.

  5. The Deluxe Transitive Vampire by Karen Elizabeth Gordon is a fun grammar book as well.

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Cindie Geddes

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