Intimidation-free grammar

You took driver’s ed to learn how do drive a car; you didn’t have to take a course in automobile mechanics to get your license. Am I right?

So how about English grammar? They tried to teach me about adverb clauses, past participles, and indefinite pronouns. Just so I could write, I guess. But I never got the connection, and I graduated high school without a clear notion of what any of these grammatical terms mean.

Now I’m teaching ninth grade English, and I’ve just read Patricia T. O’Conner’s little book,Woe Is I: the Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English. Its humor and logic are a bit beyond most of my students, but its approach is right. Why not just explain the whole thing? Why not give an overview to demonstrate that this grammar thing is manageable, and to demonstrate grammar’s connection with writing and talking? We can always go back and learn about the subjunctive when we’re in that mood.

Ms. O’Connor’s material is organized well. She gives a general rule and follows it up with examples– humorous examples, often involving sitcom and cartoon heroes from years past. The index works. She stuffs the grammatical terms into the glossary where you can find them if you want to. The chapter headings make sense, and the book is well cross-referenced. She repeats herself when necessary to carry a chapter off, and there is no harm in that.

She dedicates a chapter debunking grammar myths (e.g., don’t end a sentence with a preposition; don’t split an infinitive). The myths either were never true or were true only long ago. Her relativistic leanings seem to match those at Merriam-Webster, whose Dictionary of English Usage takes an historical approach to debunk similar myths. For instance, and happily for the preceding sentence, the Dictionary of English Usage traces the rule, “Don’t use whose to refer to an inanimate object” to a footnote in a seventeenth-century grammar book. In short order, the footnote became gospel and overturned at least three centuries of precedent, including lines by Shakespeare, Milton, and Pope. Ms. O’Conner also takes issue with this whose rule.

[book cover]The most fun chapter is titled, “Verbal Abuse: Words on the Endangered List.” This past Christmas, my family and I made a game of the specific words in this chapter that Ms. O’Conner says people either misuse or confuse with other words frequently. (E.g., “When would you use anxious in writing, and when would you use eager?” “What are the differences among eminent, imminent, and immanent?”)

Ms. O’Conner also has a helpful chapter on common stylistic writing errors and a chapter on email, which won’t tell you much new, but will at least give you written ammunition in your arguments for better-written email.

Now, if Ms. O’Conner would write a book like this for ninth graders, I will beg my school to purchase them.