04 March 2008

Of Grammar and Grandparents

This celebratory day is brought to you by the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar. And lest you think this particular day was chosen willy-nilly, think again:

It's not only a date, it's an imperative. So march forth on March 4th!

Clever. I was thrilled to find that you can disregard certain grammar "rules". It's true. Feel free to:

1) end a sentence with a preposition.
2) begin a sentence with a conjunction.

3) use sentence fragments with discretion.

They have this to say about sentence fragments:
We’ve been told not to use them, but when we do it with a light hand, they can improve the flow of our writing, making it easier to understand.

This is a huge relief. I know what you're thinking. Please, Cowbell does that shit all the time. That's true. My blog writing does tend to be more casual, particularly when I'm getting my bitch on, but the truth is, I am a grammar freak. I even do proofreading and editing for cold, hard cash. In official writing, I would never write a sentence such as, "And I'm all about some ice cream," or "That's where I'm at," but it works here.

Anyway, knowing that I can righteously begin a sentence with "but" or end a sentence with "to" makes me happy. Yes, I do it anyway, but now I won't feel like my grandparents are shaking their heads disapprovingly from the clouds.

Thank you, SPOGG. I salute you.

So, my grandparents.

How I wish they'd lived to see National Grammar Day. My maternal grandmother entered the world in 1907, the only girl born to a farming family in Pennsylvania Dutch country. Her own grandmother took a look at this squalling, newborn girl-child and remarked to her daughter (my grandma's mother), "You may as well throw her in the river, May. A girl's just another mouth to feed on a farm."

Luckily, my great-grandmother ignored her mother's advice and did not throw my grandmother into the river. My grandma went to school, worked on the farm, helped to run the house and take care of her brothers, and eventually became a teacher. She later earned a master's degree in English, despite being "just a girl" from a generation in which women were lucky if they ended up with a high school diploma.

When I think of my younger years at Grandma's house, I think of books and the color blue. Grandma loved both. There was blue in every room, and at Christmas time, the house and tree were always wrapped in blue lights.

My grandma was 40 years old by the time she had my mom and uncle (he was born in January; my mom that December, 11 months later) so I didn't know her until she was in her 60s. She didn't run around and play baseball with us, and she wasn't much of a cookie baker either, although she kept a steady supply of those miniature, individual ice cream bowls in her freezer, each accompanied by a tiny wooden spoon. What Grandma did was read and tell stories. She also still taught, driving off to her classes in her blue Plymouth Duster, wearing a smart pantsuit, her beautiful white hair brushing her shoulders. Grandma was an artist as well, something she passed on to my mom, and which trickled down through me and my sister, to our own children, exploding full force in the Bohemian. I credit my artistic skills, somewhat diluted, and definitely dusty from neglect, to my grandmother.

We loved hearing Grandma's childhood stories, usually about some mischief involving her older brother, my great-uncle Ted. We especially loved hearing stories of when our own mother was a girl. I felt like I was being let in on a secret. She would also make up wonderful stories with animals and invented countries. The worst was when she'd insist we make up the ending ourselves! We wanted her ending, but she wanted us to think for ourselves.

Grandma wasn't one for gifting us with underwear or Barbie dolls at Christmas. She bought lots of books, and had even more in her house. Grandma read to us from the time we were babies, as did Mom. I did the same with my kids, and so did my sister. When people hear that I learned to read at four, and that my kids learned at three and four, they attribute it to "being smart", but I don't think so.  (Okay, we're smart, but that's not what was going on.) It has more to do with constant exposure to the written word, adults never assuming a child is too young to learn, and with making books and stories more exciting than toys.

My Grandpa George, whom Grandma would eventually marry, was a self-educated man. He was born in Chicago, but spent time in Norway as a child. His mother, who had come to the US from somewhere near Oslo, had two sons, Grandpa being the younger. She committed suicide, the story goes, by drinking a large amount of Lysol or some sort of lye-based cleaner. My grandfather was the one who discovered her body.

He was 10 years old.

Grandpa George had dropped out of school by the 8th grade, but he never neglected his education. He served in WWII, and did various apprenticeships, coming up through the ranks, becoming a journalist the hard way. By the time I came along, he wrote a regular newspaper column and had once run his own radio show. I can still hear him doing the sign-off in his booming bass, to make us laugh, "And that's the news ... by George!"

Grandpa had an enormous printing press in the basement, a cast iron beast that dwarfed me. Its weight was measured in tons and it made an unholy racket. It was an old-school press, where the ink is rolled across a huge platter and the type is actually metal letters, set in careful lines. The walls were lined with drawer upon thin drawer of movable type, higher than my head, containing the letters and words formed in my grandfather's mind.

Grandpa told stories as well, fantastical tales told with gusto in a resonant timbre, which had Grandma shaking her head, admonishing, "Now don't you go putting wild ideas in those girls' heads, George," which did nothing but encourage him.

Ever since I can remember, Grandpa would quiz us with vocabulary words before we could sit down to eat. "Where is your proboscis?" he'd ask. My sister pointed to her knee. "Well, my chickadee, that's no proboscis, but that bone is called your patella. Say it! Patella!" Giggling, we'd point to our eyes. "What?!" he'd roar, "One's proboscis is not made for ocular work! The eyes handle the ocular responsibilities of one's body!" (rolling his eyes around like a madman) "The proboscis is meant to inhale! To detect an arrrrroma!" (rolling the "r" until we shrieked)

And don't even think about mumbling around Grandpa. "Enunciate your words, young lady! We come from a long line of enunciators! I'll not have mumbling in this house!"

My grandparents, each in their own way, loved language. Whether written or spoken, it permeated their house without us even being aware of it. My mother and uncle each grew up to become language aficionados in their own ways, before passing it on, in turn, to my generation.

So yes, I am a grammar freak. It's in my genes. As a child, I could diagram a sentence down to the tiniest detail. I used to ask my teacher for the most complicated sentence she could come up with. I may not have been able to balance an equation like the math-whiz kids, but my sentence diagrams were the stuff of legend. I don't know if US schools even teach sentence diagramming these days. I used to keep lists of interesting vocabulary words, and yes, as a matter of fact, I did read the dictionary.

To this day, I am far too easily amused by grammar humor, such as the title of Martha Brockenbrough's book, Things That Make Us [Sic]. How clever is that?

I loved the book Eats, Shoots, and Leaves. That title is a scream! It comes from a sign found at a zoo's panda exhibit, meant to convey the fact that shoots and leaves are the mainstays of the panda's diet. The addition of the commas, however, has the panda suddenly doing a dine and dash -- eating, then grabbing its rifle for a shooting rampage, and finally leaving the scene. Come on! That's funny stuff, now.

Is it really just me? Fine. Whatever.

Anyway, that's the story of why National Grammar Day has put me in mind of my grandparents, and why I think they'd get such a kick out of it. Happy National Grammar Day, everyone. Now I have to go call the Bohemian and indulge in some geeky grammar humor which she will, no doubt, appreciate. She comes by it honestly, too.

1 comment:

  1. Are you blogging right now? Nem dolgozol?

    Know what I hate is misplaced modifiers. That can seriously screw up a sentence.

    I like hearing about the days of yore!


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