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TEACHING PROPER GRAMMAR AIN'T NECESSARILY A BORE

The first book I ever wrote was titled "The Parents' Handbook of Grammar and Usage," and I intended it to be a resource that parents could use to help their children and themselves to acquire a better knowledge and command of standard English. The book has been out of print for several years now. The company that published it went bankrupt, and although the book was not the direct cause of their demise, neither was it what could be called a runaway best-seller.

I still wish all parents kept a grammar book at home, because there are adult language problems that crop up from time to time, and there is usually no resource available in such annoying situations as when they must choose whether to use "which" or "that" in a resume, or where to put the apostrophe in the family name on the mailbox.They also have no guidebook to help them direct their children's oral and written usage along the lines of "standard English" - a dialect that we were all taught in school, but that is not expected or modeled as much in today's classrooms, partly because our teacher-training institutions have become more concerned with encouraging language that is politically correct instead of language that is grammatically correct.

The "grammar rules" that we learned in school always seemed so harsh and restrictive, yet they gave us a foundation from which we could develop confidence in our ability to speak and write and convey our thoughts and dreams to others without embarrassment. These rules are just as important for our children to know, and they will discover that at least half the fun of breaking a grammar rule is in knowing which rule you are breaking.

Today we know that grammar rules don't have to be taught as prescriptive edicts, but that children can have fun with language at the same time they are learning the customs of polite usage. The columnist William Safire has compiled a paperback booklet (titled "Fumblerules") of grammar rules in which each rule is stated in a way that violates the rule itself. "Don't use no double negatives," for example, is followed by a brief explanation of the principle involved and some examples that occur in common speech and writing. Here are some others:

"Never use a long word when a diminutive one will do."

"Use parallel structure when you write and in speaking."

My favorite is "Never use a preposition to end a sentence with." In the grammar book I wrote for parents, I explained that prepositions could be found at the end of sentences written by the greatest speakers and writers who ever lived, and I related the story of a boy who framed a perfectly understandable sentence that ended with FIVE prepositions. It seemed that the boy's father would bring a book up to the child's bedside to read to his son each night, and one evening he selected a book that the child did not particularly like. The boy asked his father, "What did you bring that book that I didn't want to be read to out of up for?"

Shortly after the book was published, I received a letter from a lady in Iowa who suggested that if the father had selected a book about Australia, the boy could have framed a question that ended in EIGHT prepositions: "What did you bring that book that I didn't want to be read to out of about Down Under up for?"

This recasting of grammar rules is an enjoyable home activity that can complement a child's classroom and textbook lessons. Just remember that language is to be played with. And don't worry about starting your sentences with a conjunction.