Thursday, March 4, 2010

i before e

This is definitely the day created for me. National Grammar Day. I am the woman who corrects song lyrics on the radio. I edit my junk mail.

But although my family and friends, to their utter chagrin, know me as the Grammar Gestapo, the truth is, I came late to the punctuation police.

I grew up in the era when teaching grammar didn't "foster a child's creativity." Too late, we discovered that all the rules we tossed in the 70's turned out to be somewhat useful. Like knowing how to write in complete sentences on a job application. And spell your own last place of residence. (Those were not complete sentences. Ha ha. Writers can get away with that.)

In fact, my junior high language arts career consisted of reading books in the library and occasionally reporting on them. I had somehow passed, a couple years early, all the information they thought junior high student needed to know by the end of eighth grade. How I did this without sufficient grammar skills mystified me. Thus, the library. I got straight A's in high school and graduated with honors in my college literature major all without ever knowing what a split infinitive was. Yes, my college professors would make red slashes and vague comments like "comma splice" on my papers, but I had no idea what that meant.

Then, I became an English teacher. There is nothing like a roomful of high school juniors looking at you like you're the gazelle and they're the leopard to make you learn quickly the stuff you're supposed to teach. I did not want to make a mistake. I'd already done that by trying to teach the difference between "lay" and "lie." Trust me, it's better never to teach this to teenagers. It is not worth the embarrassment when they snicker all the way through explanations of anything getting laid anywhere. And learn I did, a few steps ahead of them, until they and I could all get near-perfect ACT scores in English, if necessary.

They actually thanked me after taking those college exams. "Mrs. Richardson (Miss Hutchinson) we really needed that stuff! And I knew it!" It always amused me that they had such a tone of wonder when they said that, like they had firmly believed I was up there every day teaching this stuff because I had some sweet but misguided illusion that the English language would be necessary to their daily lives.

In honor of National Grammar Day, I offer some often abused language rules. At least I can sleep tonight, knowing I've done my part to save the world.

Oft-abused grammar rule number one-- Quotation marks go outside of periods and commas. Always. No exceptions. It does not matter if the quotation marks are around only the last word in the sentence -- the period goes inside of them. Question marks and exclamation points are completely up to the whim of the writer. Well, not completely, but I'm not going into that. Thus, the sentence:

He will be reading from that stirring essay, "How to Potty Train Your Cat." is correct, while
He will be reading from that stirring essay, "How to Potty Train Your Cat". is not.

Oft-abused grammar rule number two -- Unless someone or something possesses something else, please do not use an 'apostrophe s.' (Note those quotation marks.) Thus,

"The cat's flagrantly disregarded the wisdom of that essay," tells us that there is one cat, and he apparently owns something, perhaps a certain level of disregard. This misguided person meant to say "The cats." Of course, you could say, "The cats' flagrant disregard annoyed me, just like writers' complete disregard for this rule." But that is another sentence.

Oft-abused grammar rule number three--To add the word "literally" to a sentence means just that--something really did happen. I read this so often when someone is trying to exaggerate, but unless what you said really did happen, it is not "literally." When I read "He literally lost his head," I get an interesting visual, but that is the opposite of what the word really means! Literally.

Well, that is enough for today. If i feel any grammar rants coming on in the future, I'll be sure to write them down. Literally. Now, time to go potty train some cats. Not literally. See how handy that is?

2 comments:

Jeanette Levellie said...

Jill: So, when I say, "Are you ready for todays question?" is it okay that I don't put an apostrophe after the y? For me, today's is a contraction for "today is." Right?

jill said...

Hi Jeanette,
Actually, not so there. The question "belongs to" today, so today is possessive and should be today's. I love to see your comments!