grammarMy wife and I were both reading this morning and I stopped to ask her about a sentence I had just read in an article. “Tim Cook announced last year he is gay.” I asked her if she thought it should be “is” or “was.” Being that we have both been teachers, we actually have these kinds of conversations. She voted for “was” for the sake of parallel construction. I voted for “is” (which is what the magazine used) because it’s not that he was gay and no longer is gay.

Some of my wife’s argument may come from her having taught French for many years. “It would never be correct in French,” she told me.

That led me to wonder if she was a “French teacher” or more correctly “a teacher of French.” She was constantly referred to as a French teacher, but she did not have any French ancestry. In fact, she is Italian. Was she an Italian French teacher? Now that is confusing. She was certified to teach Italian too. She could be called an Italian teacher for both reasons.

After I refilled my coffee cup, she continued the topic and asked me “Would you say ‘Hemingway was a great writer’ or ‘Hemingway is a great writer’?” I would say “is.” He still is a great writer. “Would you say at her funeral that Mary was or is very kind?” I would say “was.” My wife asked why I saw a difference.

Hemingway still is a great writer, even though he is dead. Just like I would say that his A Moveable Feast is a great book. “That’s because the book still exists. Hemingway doesn’t,” said my wife.

It is confusing.

Later in my reading, I came across a review of a new book, Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris who has spent more 30+ year in The New Yorker‘s copy department, home of high standards.

It is a burden that my own 30+ years have been spent teaching English. People both expect my grammar to be perfect, and say they feel uncomfortable speaking or writing to me because I may “correct their grammar.”

When I started teaching, grammar and punctuation were at least a third of the curriculum. We taught it very much isolated from real writing tasks, even though we graded it in those writing tasks.

In the 1980s, that loosened. Instead of being an “English teacher,” may teachers in the grades below high school were referred to as “language arts” teachers.  We still taught that “i” came before “e,” except after “c” and a  few other exceptions. Students never really understood that the verb “to be” was like an equal sign and that meant that you used the nominative case on both sides of it.  Saying “It is I” didn’t sound correct in anyone in the classroom even if the book said so.

In college, I was tortured by a grammar class that taught me about deep structures and linguistics, all of which was useless in teaching eighth grade. I was happily able to almost completely avoid diagramming sentences as a student and as a teacher.

Norris’ book is the kind I have very mixed feelings about reading. I never wanted to be a “comma king” and avoided many grammar gurus and the books they wrote. From what I can glean from reviews, hers is not a grammar textbook and I suspect she may be kinder about everyday speaking and writing than she would be for an article in the magazine. And we should be tougher on published writing.

One reviewer mentions an example of hers concerning the use of dashes. She quotes a note Jacqueline Kennedy wrote to Richard Nixon after her husband’s death. The very personal note was in Jackie’s “breathy” style and contained lots of dashes. Norris does the English teacher (or editor) thing and “corrects” it. The grammatically correct result just isn’t Jackie.

It sounds like the book is more of a journey through Norris’ life with words. I do like language oddities. Nuggets like learning that there was once a serious movement to settle the “is it she or he” situation led to a suggestion to start using “heesh” are amusing.  (I might have opted for s/he, but the pronunciation is an issue.)

policeI have a good-sized list of language items that annoyed me in student writing and in the larger world and still annoy me: everyday vs. every day; that damned alot for a lot; it’s vs. its, your vs. you’re and all those; the overuse of “basically” and “literally.” But I can’t get excited enough to do battle over one or two spaces at the end of a sentence or punctuation inside or outside the quotation marks any more. “But you are an English teacher, ” friends say, fully expecting outrage from me about some error by a politician in a speech or in an advertisement.

I am on the edge of all this. I know that “Grammar Girl” has a website, podcast and books and I have checked all of them out and they can be fun, but it is just not a big part in my world in and out of the classroom these days. I still love language, but I am more interested in the stories behind words and phrases and following how the language changes than I am in being the grammar policeman trying to keep things in line and behind the barricades.

Norris’ title plays off a common mistake of “using ‘I’ instead of ‘me’ in phrases such as ‘between you and me,’ after any preposition or as the object of a verb.” She would tell you, like any good teacher, that a little memory trick is to put the “I” first. Though people might make the mistake of saying “between you and I,” I doubt any of them would make the mistake of saying “between I and you.”

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