7 May 2004
Earlier this week I had someone ask me if I was a grammarian. I immediately said ‘no’ and I was taken aback at the vehemence of my own denial. It seemed odd for someone whose favorite occupations are reading and writing
In school I was exposed to grammar in several different ways. The most obvious was the classic grammar unit in English class, complete with diagramming sentences, verb tenses, and all the other components that sent me fleeing for the hills for fear of losing my mind. What I didn’t realize at the time was that I was actually learning grammar though reading and writing.
Reading has always been a joy for me. I enjoy sinking into a book and losing track of my surroundings. I can not remember a time when I could not read, and more than that, I can not remember a time when concentrating on reading was at all difficult for me. I could read anywhere there was enough light. My surroundings could be noisy or quiet. I could be travelling or curled up on the couch. My parents, and now my husband, would have to repeat my name several times to pull me out of what ever I was reading at the time.
Writing has never been easy for me, but I enjoy doing it none-the-less. I like words and I find it stimulating to try to convey an idea to someone else via the written word. My writing has always been marred by grammar and spelling idiosyncrasies, though with the advent of spell checkers, a husband who is a natural copy editor, and twenty-plus years of trial and error it has seen some improvement.
Throughout my years of struggle with the written word, I have never considered myself a grammarian, but the more I have read over the years, the more I have come to respect the need for structure in language– a certain rigidity that forces authors to mold their thoughts in patterns that readers can understand. When I first started to write, I felt that others should make the effort to understand me. Then I learned the lesson we all learn, which is that the world does not revolve around me and, if I want people to understand my thoughts, the effort would have to be mine.
I learned various bits and pieces of grammar with each paper that came back covered in red or purple ink. Each teacher that took time to mark awkward sentences, explain the importance of the serial comma, or try to get me to understand the uses of the every mysterious semi-colon helped me build a style manual in my head. My style manual still contains some of my own idiosyncrasies but each year I learn more.
This was recently brought home to me in my Norwegian language class. I have gotten to the point where I know enough words that I can make baby sentences, and I have enough dictionaries that I can get myself in real trouble when I try to write something on my own. In order to go further, I have to start paying attention to grammar and the rules and exceptions that make words and phrases ‘sound right.’ Unfortunately for me, regardless of the language, I seem to have a hard time understanding the rules that people have distilled from the way language is used. Past tense, participles, prepositions, all dance around in my head and refuse to be pinned down into rules I can use until I can set up a feedback loop. Once I am shown something, try to do it myself, and am then corrected (many times) I can then create a rule I can remember.
For me the rules and structure of language come long after I know what it should sound like. I don’t know that I will ever be a grammarian, but that will not stop me from loving words and the structure they need to thrive.
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