When I was in seventh grade, my English teacher Mrs. Anderson would use the window pole to beat time on the floor as we memorized the forms of "be" in chorus: "be, am, is, are, was, were, been, being."
In my daily life I forget many things--library books, meetings I'm scheduled for, recommendation letters I'm supposed to write, even my own kid's soccer games--but I have never, ever forgotten the forms of be. (Nor the lyrics to "Build Me Up, Buttercup," but that's a blog for another day.)
However, learning that one verb was about the extent of my grammar instruction. I took a course in college as part of my English requirement, and muddled through as best I could. My roommate's older brother ended up doing a lot of my sentence diagramming for me, and I regret to say that I emerged from that course with very little comprehension of grammatical structures.
But it was my great good luck to be hired by a regressive school district in the late seventies. I say "good luck," because teaching English there also meant teaching grammar out of the Warriner's textbook. And before I could teach it, I had to learn it. Fast.
And there was only one way to do so. I had to do every exercise in the chapter, sometimes more than once. I barely stayed one step ahead of my students as we mastered direct and indirect objects, noun clauses, and the ever popular gerunds and participles. We learned it together, the old-fashioned way-drill and kill.
And I am now going to share a dirty little secret, and probably bring down upon my head the ire of many of my colleagues, but here it is. There is only one way to learn grammar. And that is by practice and drill and more practice and more drill until you test them and find out if you have to drill some more. And usually you do.
Having to teach it, I came to love it. I love its rules and tables; I even love its exceptions. And strange as it may sound, I find sentence diagramming kind of fun.
A knowledge of grammar lends precision to writing, and I love precision. I try not to let my modifiers dangle. I use apostrophes only where necessary. I am still a fan of the Oxford comma, though its use is going out of style.
We don't teach grammar in isolation anymore, but I do sneak a little of it into my lessons. And while far from expert--one only has to read my blog entries--I somehow have the honor of being the unofficial grammar guru to one of the secretaries in the main office. One day as we hashed out a tricky participial construction, she lowered her voice to a whisper. "I know I shouldn't say it, but I miss that old Warriner's textbook."
Causes Rosemary DiBattista Supports
The Alzheimer's Association