A Reluctant Grammarian Goes Over to the Dark Side

imagesBecause I was dream-ridden, impractical and enjoyed reading, I majored in English without giving future employment a nanosecond’s consideration. Not adept at linear thinking (or delayed gratification), I floated day-to-day through the eight seasons of my undergraduate career bullshitting, wooing, drinking, reefering, eating cafeteria food, listening to and talking about music, reading, writing papers, and studying (not necessarily in that order).

Something would come up or happen or not.

No way did I ever envision myself as a future high or middle school teacher. I recall my pre-undergraduate days, not with nostalgia, but with a feeling of good-riddance, like Japanese Californians might look back on their internment during WW2.

Ironically, my English class in the 8th grade was what I dreaded most each day: constructing mobile-like diagrams of stilted workbook sentences or splashing misspelled words between prim blue lines as I stacked one atop the other five mechanically engineered paragraphs.

Sometimes I foolishly envied my teachers because I thought they didn’t suffer the anxiety I did (they seemed to have their shit together), but no way did I ever even remotely consider expending

hours . . .

days . . .

years . . .

decades . . .

in concrete-block enclosures forcing kids to read the Fireside Poets.

Nevertheless, I am an English teacher, which means, alas, people who don’t know me well think I might judge them on the standardization of their grammar, whether spoken or written. I try to reassure them that I digs the vernacular, that they can feel free to split infinitives, confuse lie with lay, end sentences with prepositions. It’s all good/well with me.

I could [not] care less (unless they confuse number with amount [petty] or use literally to mean figuratively [deadly]).*

Nevertheless, me, myself and I-and-I hesitate to violate grammatical rules in written language, even though I know the best prose sounds as if like someone’s talking to you.

See what I mean? Grammar books teach that one in written language should not introduce a clause (as in the sentence above) with the preposition “like,” but you sound like some stilted schoolmarm if you use “as if,” not to mention, one. In fact, I violate the subordinate pronoun rule in the last clause of the last sentence of paragraph 3 – like Japanese Californians might look back on their internment during WW2.

Truth be told, I had to spend some time getting that clause right. I’d prefer a singular antecedent – a Japanese Californian – but I didn’t want the clutter of singular gender specific pronouns like his and her  – however, I also didn’t want to drop the pronoun altogether as in like a Japanese Californian might look back on internment because the rhythm wasn’t quite right. After a bit of praying and fasting, I ended up opting for a plural antecedent Californians so I could correctly use “their.”

In fact, I’m almost at the point of endorsing plural neuter pronouns like they and their as a practical, ear-pleasing alternatives to cluttering sentences with hises and herses.

Compare this cliché with its politically correct alternatives:

A measure of a man is his

A measure of a wo/man is his or her

A measure of a person is his of her [or his/her]

A measure of a person is their

I’m thinking the last one might be best. It doesn’t suggest that women are subsets of men, it doesn’t bring attention to the differences between the two, and it doesn’t clutter/ruin the rhythm of the sentence. Obviously, it’s grammatically wrong, but to most people it doesn’t sound wrong.

After all, the construction “I’m a good ventriloquist, ain’t I” makes more grammatical sense than “I’m a good ventriloquist, aren’t I?”

After all, I are a ventriloquist extraordinaire.

*”I contradict myself?  So I contradict myself.  A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” sez Ralph Waldo.