When I was in 8th grade, my English teacher was named Mrs. Hooker (yes, a horrible name for a middle school teacher, but I was too naive then to take advantage). She was amazing, and I say that despite the fact that she couldn’t get me to read The Grapes of Wrath or, for that matter, even sit through the entire film. She inspired joy in reading and writing – in fact, one of my favorite assignments of all time was when she asked us to imagine where our classmates would be in 20 years. (I’m still in touch with some of those folks – Wendy did not become head librarian at the Library of Congress, but that’s okay).
She also taught me to diagram sentences. Suddenly, all the ways I knew sentences worked had rules and patterns. (I have always been a rule-follower, even though I shirked on Steinbeck.) The subjects went on one line and the verbs after them with that little pillar between them. The adverbs and adjectives jauntily tucked below. Ah, just thinking about it makes me happy.
I know diagramming isn’t taught much anymore, and I’m not sure I think it should be. I just know that it grounded me in language like a lightening rod. Because of those lessons, I can dissect sentences for how they work, and I can construct them in complex patterns that resemble the watershed of the Chesapeake Bay without making an error. And when I want to break the rules, I know what I’m breaking.
So it’s with Mrs. Hooker’s grounding in mind, I come to some of the newer rules of grammar with some trepidation. Take, for example, the now-optional serial comma. (For those of you not as, um, invested in grammar, the serial comma is the one that comes before the “and” – i.e. Andi likes diagramming sentences, drinking coffee, and dancing to Cheap Trick.) The thinking is that the “and” does the work of separating the last two items in the list, and since that’s what commas do – they separate – a comma isn’t needed there.
I say poppycock. As the graphic above shows, without this comma, any list can be read as being made up of a noun (strippers) and two appositives (jfk and stalin). Thus, the last two items in the list seem to be clarifying the noun. (Sorry to get so English teacher geeky there for a sec.) The thing is I just like the serial comma.
I also like that when you have a word that ends in ‘s,’ you simply add an apostrophe to make it possessive (Ken Burns’ documentary). Now, however, it seems that the correct spelling is Burns’s, which just makes me feel a little too like I belong in Slytherin. (See I can geek out in all kinds of ways.)
Or the two spaces after a period. I like that. It gives each sentence some breathing room, a little white space to help the reader mentally shift between thoughts the same way an indent or blank line signals a change in paragraph.
Now, I realize that I’m kind of old-fashioned here (as indicated, it seems, by my use of the word “poppycock”), but I like how Mrs. Hooker taught me. I liked these rules because they make sense, and they help make English more understandable. I realize that that extra space after a period takes longer to type and grabs more room on the precious page, and I realize that these things cost more. But sometimes, it’s worth it to pay a little more for good writing, don’t you think?
At least, that’s what Mrs. Hooker thought . . . maybe that’s why she assigned Steinbeck in 8th grade.
What do you think about these “new” grammar rules? And please, what are your feelings about diagramming sentences?