Grammar Cops, Cowboys, and Deputies

I have a confession to make. Until I had to start teaching grammar about ten years ago, I knew very little about it (despite being a published author and having earned a few advanced degrees). As far as I was concerned, grammar was for people too stuffy to write for fun and too snobby to care about what the rest of us were doing. Real writers, I thought, learned enough about language by being in the trenches as readers and sitting down at their desks every day to wrangle with words – sort of like cowboys too cool to stick by the rules, snickering behind their hands at the stiff-backed policemen who enforce the laws of society.

But then I started a job teaching composition to college freshmen, and their genuine questions first showed me how unfamiliar they were with grammar, and then showed me how poorly equipped I was to help them. My insatiable hunger for reading and writing had accidentally taught me how to string sentences together with flair, but when asked to teach what I knew, I suddenly realized how many serious holes there were in my own foundations.

Still, I regarded the copy of Janis Bell’s Clean, Well-Lighted Sentences that the department head handed me suspiciously – even superstitiously. Surely this would take the wind out of my creative sails, I told myself. And in all honesty, if there weren’t kids depending on my expertise, I probably would have let it gather dust along with all the other books of its kind on my crowded shelves.

But then, reading that book was like finding the matches to so many puzzle pieces that had been swept under the rug. “So that’s where that goes!” I found myself thinking again and again. And what’s more, I learned how much easier writing could be when I wasn’t guessing at how to convey certain meanings. You have probably already come across one of my favorite examples of this: the difference between what we mean when we write “Eat, Grandma!” and “Eat Grandma!” But that little book was full of thousands more similar jewels, each giving off new light and clarity to the language I already loved.

When I was a kid, there weren’t many Janis Bells around. We didn’t have Grammar Girl or Grammarly. If I had a question about grammar, I had to ask Mrs. Stewart, whom I loved and revered and found absolutely terrifying. Usually, I chose to wing it rather than risk exposing my ignorance while she stared over those little glasses at me with those unblinking, piercing blue eyes.

In the past few decades, though, someone had the brilliant realization that most writers don’t want to know every last rule of grammar and style known to wo/man. We just want to know what will help us get our meanings across, and have the freedom to break the rules every once in a while – provided we know which rules we’re breaking in the first place, and can understand the consequences. Starting a sentence with ‘but’, for example, doesn’t bother me in the least (as seen above). Even allowing fragments to stand for sentences, or deliberately misplacing my modifiers with as much chutzpah as a bartender mixes drinks.

I guess I used to think that you either followed the laws or you didn’t. You either became a member of the grammar police force or you embraced your status as an outlaw. But I think most of us need something in between. Maybe a sort of grammar deputy, if you will, who knows and likes everyone in town and enforces the rules to maintain order but who has a warm sense of humor and isn’t going to give you a ticket if you’re speeding on the way to the hospital. As I write this, I’m guessing mine is kind of a hybrid between Barney Fife and Barney Miller. There’s probably something seriously wrong with me that my deputy is a cross between two white men with apologetic smiles, but I guess they kind of remind me of my dad. They’re familiar and caring and want the best for everyone involved, but they’re not afraid to stand up for what they believe in.

Anyway, I’m sure you can find your way to a far more expansive and modern grammar deputy of your own. But I do hope whoever it is has enough integrity to keep you on your toes and enough humanity to win your trust. Because depending on how you approach it, a working knowledge of grammar can prove useful in endlessly surprising ways, clearing the way and shortening the distance between call and response, between the thrill of expression and the even greater joy of being understood.

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