Fun with Grammar Nazis

A few posts back, I mentioned Practically Painless English, a grammar primer by Sally Foster Wallace, mother of the famous David Foster Wallace, the brilliant novelist and essayist who gave us Infinite Jest and “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.”

Here’s a riff from one of David Foster Wallace’s infamous footnotes, a description of his favorite “tablemate” on a luxury cruise that Harper’s sent him on, despite his being more than a touch agoraphobic:

Trudy was 56, the same age as my own dear personal Mom, and looked – Trudy did, and I mean this in the nicest way possible – like Jackie Gleason in drag, and had a particularly loud pre-laugh scream that was a real arrhythmia-producer, and was the one who coerced me into Wednesday night’s Conga Line, and got me strung out on Snowball Jackpot Bingo, and was also an incredible lay authority on 7NC Luxury Cruises, this being her sixth in a decade – she and her friend Esther (thin-faced, subtly ravaged-looking, the distaff part of the couple from Miami) had tales to tell about Carnival, Princess, Crystal, and Cunard too fraught with libel-potential to produce here, and one long review of what was apparently the worst cruise in 7NC history – one “American Family Cruises,” which folded after just sixteen months – involving outrages too literally incredible to be believed from any duo less knowledgeable and discerning than Trudy and Esther.

Look what I found: Jackie Gleason in drag!

In the above-mentioned post, I mentioned that I actually taught from Practically Painless English in the ‘80’s but that now copies were going for $138, but lo and behold, I have scored a copy of the second edition for pittance — $34.

What a hoot. Sally Foster Wallace is brilliantly subversive. Dig this explanation of the capitalization of pronouns:

Remember that I is the only pronoun that is always capitalized, no matter where it appears in the sentence. Capitalize a pronoun referring to God, too:

God’s eye is on the sparrow, but I know He watches me.[1]

Here’s an example with the polite instruction to “please circle each pronoun you find in these sentences”:

Lassie is teaching her pups to chew with their mouths open.

Another treat is that she creates a cast of idiosyncratic characters who sort of evolve – or at least provide behavioral motifs — as we travel from “Parts of Speech” through “Paragraphs.”

These include Peony McAllister, Rambo and Rambette, Inertia and Aphasia. Grandma and Grandpa Pringle, and Chively Sneed. Fedonia Krump and Mongo.

Here are a few of my favorite examples:

Please circle the adverbs in the following paragraph:

Peony McAllister was so excited about her extremely interesting Japanese flower-arranging class that she completely ignored the bright red stop signs randomly placed here and there on her route to school. Suddenly, her very cold ears picked up the hauntingly familiar sound of a skull-shattering loud siren, and she saw dazzling lights in her rearview mirror. Frantically, she began to create convincingly pathetic excuses for going too fast. As she slowly pulled over to the side of the road, she patted her motorcycle gently and smiled bravely at the very large person who was slowly approaching.

Brava!

Identify the part of speech of the italicized words.

Ezra pounded the steak and then smothered it in onions.

If you call your sister a dweebazoid again, I’ll be forced to turn you into a toad.

Obviously, no remedial student is going to pick up that allusion.

Identify the subject and verb.

Rambette took her parakeet for a walk.

Wild horses dragged the tall leprechauns to a boring movie.

Here’s one from a punctuation exercise.

Fedonia’s pet lion fell into the paving machine so she calls him Leotarred.

You catch the drift – DFW didn’t fall far from the maternal tree, at least as far as surrealism and an obsession with English usage (go, goes).

It’s interesting to note that when he taught college, he was, by his own admission, fanatical about correct grammar and mechanics. Here he is in another footnote, this one from the essay: “Authority and American usage” describing what happened every semester when he taught lit.

Once I’ve had to read my students’ first set of papers, we immediately abandon the regular Lit syllabus and have a three-week Emergency Remedial Usage and Grammar Unit, during which my demeanor is basically that of teaching HIV prevention to intravenous drug users. When it emerges (as it does every term) that 95 percent of these intelligent upscale college students have never been taught, e.g., what a clause is or why a misplaced only can make a sentence confusing or why you don’t just stick in a comma after a noun phrase, I all but pound my head on the blackboard; I get angry and self-righteous; I tell them they should sue their hometown school boards, and I mean it. Every August I vow silently to chill about usage this year, and then by Labor Day there’s foam on my chin. I can’t seem to help it. The truth is that I’m not even an especially good or dedicated teacher; I don’t have this fervor in class about anything else, and I know it’s not a very productive fervor, not a healthy one – it’s got elements of fanaticism and rage to it, plus a snobbishness that I know I’d be mortified to display about anything else.

Good God, how I miss DFW. What a loss to literature.

David Foster Wallace
world copyright Giovanni Giovannetti/effigie


[1] Aren’t two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father’s consent.  Matthew 10:29, Holman Christian Standard Bible