Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Confessions of a Grammar Despot

It is true, I am a grammar & punctuation freak.  I took a test on Grammarly today & received the title of Grammar Despot.

It comes from a lifetime of listening to others read to me, reading myself, escaping into & soaring within text.  It comes from being a perpetual student, accumulating over 80 hours of English Lit courses & a few creative writing courses.

Or perhaps it comes from a paper I wrote as a senior in high school for Patsy Kay Kelly McGinnis at Dulles High School.  Back in the day, before technology revolutionized the creation of text of every medium, students researched in libraries, were required to submit index cards documenting the research, & wrote our papers out in legible, cursive writing.
I did not receive my first typewriter until I went to college.  For those of you unfamiliar with typewriters, here is a pic of one very similar to my first:

But, as I said, a typewriter came later.

Back to Patsy Kay Kelly McGinnis (I know her full name because she showed us her Master’s thesis).  The first day of her Composition class, we were all required to write.  The next day, as I was leaving her classroom, she handed me my paper from the previous day & said,

You have a very distinctive style.

At the time, I thought What is style? 

Mrs. McGinnis was the third high school English teacher to read one of my papers out loud to the class.  It was a paper on The Great Gatsby, using Simon & Garfunkel’s Sounds of Silence.

While she may have seen a distinctive style in my writing, like many of my teachers, she believed I talked too much.

(My freshman English teacher at Coronado High School in El Paso, Lucy Leavitt, wrote in my yearbook – You will do well, if you control the perpetual motor machine that is your mouth.)

Unfortunately, that particular trait has not ever come under control in my sixty plus years on this planet.

My friends & I sat in the back of Mrs. McGinnis’s classroom.  We did pass notes & whisper to one another.  But no matter who was the offender, no matter if I was silent & not participating in breaking the taboo against talking, I was blamed. 

It became a joke among us.

Over time, I have forgotten the subject of the paper I wrote for Patsy’s Composition class that turned me into a grammar Nazi.   

I wrote two research papers that year – one for my English class & one for Patsy.  One on the Christian symbolism in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings & one comparing & contrasting Camus’s The Stranger & The Plague. 

On every writing assignment in Patsy Kay Kelly McGinnis’s class, we received two grades – one for content & one for grammar.  My research paper for her resulted in a 100 for content & 85 for grammar.

I left out a semi colon in the final sentence & she deemed it, correctly, a run-on sentence.  A deduction of 15 points.  (She marked the deduction in a large & firm Run On Sentence!  – 15 ).

Not only that, before Patsy handed out our graded papers, she made an announcement to the class:

One of you, who knows better . . . [DRAMATIC PAUSE, looking my way]
 . . . wrote a run-on sentence.

(I am really still not over that 85 or the embarrassment of the announcement of my grammatical transgression.)

When I confess, what many people know, that I am a grammar Nazi, I am using a term often cited on social media.  For most people, the difference between they’re & there & their is inconsequential – the content of their post supersedes grammar or punctuation.

I make this confession of my despotism public with a caveat – I do not have a problem with breaking grammatical rules.  I have done it for over fifty years.  Sometimes it works & sometimes it has unfortunate results. 

Because words have consequences.

The use of words has consequences.  Spelling & punctuation have consequences.

'Cause you know sometimes words have two meanings.
In a tree by the brook, there's a songbird who sings,
Sometimes all of our thoughts are misgiven.
-       From Stairway to Heaven

Words do not disappear.  Never more so than in the digital world that is our present & future.  Words posted & written & spoken have a life of their own. 

Words breathe life into our culture, our philosophy, our spiritual being.

We are all writers, the authors of the texts of our lives.  What we write & post & speak & film & sing & paint & sculpt & create is woven into a breathing braid of texts – strands & strands waiting to be brought out & rewoven & reborn into something new.

By other writers & creators.

Words matter.

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