#8: My Dirty Little Secret: Grammar Issues
I blame Brother Ryan and a number 2 pencil for all of my recurring grammatical errors. I know the precise moment my writing life suffered its traumatic scar.
It was my first day of ninth grade and I sat in English class under the cassocked tutelage of Brother Thomas Ryan. The slender Xaverian brother cast a six and a half foot shadow across the room. He wore thick, black framed glasses, kept his dark hair Marine Corps tight, and harbored an odd obsession with the 1920’s actress Thelma Todd . He hung black and white photos of her all around his room. On my first day at St. John’s, the all-boys, Catholic prep school I attended in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts, Brother Ryan stood in front of twenty-eight terrified boys extolling the virtues of grammar and usage. At some point during his opening remarks, my pencil rolled toward the edge of my desk, dangled a moment, then fell. It barely made a sound when it hit the floor. As I leaned over from my desk chair to retrieve the fallen pencil, Brother Ryan screamed, “LEAVE IT!” The echo of those two words rolled out like thunder across the room, shaking the floor, rattling the windows and forever terrifying those of us who had to endure an entire school year under this maniac’s hand. Needless to say, the pencil remained on the floor. It might still be there to this day.
Charles Baxter, in his essay “Dysfunctional Narratives or ‘Mistakes Were Made’,” says (critically) that much of contemporary writing has become about reacting to “harms done to them (the characters) in the psychic past.” Baxter calls this model the “fiction of the quest for blame.” Perfect. I’ve found my “unmoved mover.” I blame Brother Ryan and that pencil for all my subsequent grammatical errors.
From that day forward, Brother Ryan worked us hard. We diagrammed sentences every day. He was like a drill sergeant beating grammar into his recruits, training us for battle, forcing us to memorize the rules so they would shield us from bullets or thermonuclear blasts in the war on language raging outside his classroom. The culminating project of freshman year was to diagram a massive sentence (I wish I remembered where it was from, Poe perhaps), an exercise that required a sheet of butcher paper rolled across our desks, both edges touching the floor. It took a week for some students to finish.
As it turned out, Brother Ryan was a pretty funny guy and a good teacher. He spent an entire year on grammar, but that damned, falling pencil doomed me. The psychic scar of being chastised in such a public manner forever blocked access to the lessons I should have learned. Or maybe I’m just looking for someone to blame. Maybe the failure is mine and mine alone. Maybe the laziness in my writing is not a product of some monk trying to scare his students but a result of a broader weakness in society, a weakness that tolerates such lapses.
I’m embarrassed to admit that I still find myself struggling with grammar and usage. I recognize it as a serious impediment in my ability to construct sentences. It’s the equivalent of a painter not understanding color.
In Doug’s essay, “The Attack of the Copula Spiders,” the NC moderator charges his students with the following grammatical war-crimes (among other things):
In the post-literate age, here’s what I have to teach writing students. Apparently, given the manuscripts I read, at least fifty per cent of my students do not know what a dangling modifier is, let alone a split infinitive, a sentence fragment, a pronoun with an ambiguous or missing antecedent, a run-on sentence, a comma splice, the difference between a comma, a colon and a semicolon. Often, they do not know how to punctuate dialogue correctly, or, even if they do, they don’t mind being careless about it here and there and letting me make the correction…Student writers like this do not seem to suffer shame at their ignorance. In the post-literate age, such ignorance is the norm.
I plead guilty to all charges except one: the shame. It is shameful for me to continuously make grammar mistakes, more so because I’ve had the benefits of teachers like Brother Ryan and many years of formal education. I cringe when I read that paragraph from Doug’s essay because it so directly accuses me. I wrote earlier on NC about spending a Friday night reading a grammar book. I do try, but studying grammar from a text is a bit like learning words by reading the dictionary. My opportunity to ‘practice’ grammar issues passed with end of freshman English. It no longer feels like practice. I was supposed to be prepared, and now I find myself on the front lines and my gun keeps jamming. (I’m getting carried away with the war metaphors. Time for a Treaty of Paris (Hilton)) Nowhere (until VCFA) did anyone take this seriously, and it’s become this wart on every story, every essay, and every blog post that I write. Grammar is hard for me, but difficulty is no excuse.
Just yesterday I received Virginia Tufte’s Syntax as Style. This book has already become a welcome weapon in my writing arsenal (meager though my arsenal may be). She addresses many elements of style, syntax, grammar and usage. It’s time to reconcile the trauma of my youth. It’s time to learn grammar again. It’s time to catch the pencil before it hits the ground! It’s time to let Brother Ryan off the hook.
Up Next: #7: Letting Go
See also other entries in this series.
Exactly what kind of obsession did Brother Ryan have with Thelma Todd, and doesn’t this tell you something? (Hey! She was in several Marx Bros. movies!)
Actually, I’d like to see a discussion of when to bend the rules in fiction to maintain voice, even in third person narration. (I still debate between “Everyone wrote their translations. . .” and “Everyone wrote his translation . . . .” Or “his or her” or “his/her.”)
Bro. Ryan never explained his obsession with her, but it was strong enough to leave an indellible mark on my memory. I suppose a monk being in love with a dead actress maintains the technical boundaries of chastity.
Regarding grammar, I’ll offer another quote from Doug’s article (Copula Spiders):
“Look, I know what poetic license is and I know how to shade a meaning or withhold a piece of information till the most dramatic point of revelation. But false artfullness is merely portentous, and incorrect grammar is unprofessional, insulting to the reader, and an aesthetic disaster.”
Of course usage rules do change and language is always evolving. It’s an interesting topic.