Thursday, September 2, 2010

How to write stuff

First find a sheet of paper and a pencil. Then sharpen the pencil. Place the pencil on the paper and move the arm onto which the pencil is affixed.

Or do you know all that?

OK, but do you know the rudiments of grammar?

Years ago I heard that ‘you can’t break the rules if you don’t know them.’ Ridiculous. A person is a hundred times more likely to break a rule she doesn’t know. But then, I suppose that’s not what the quote means. Yet both concepts apply - if you don’t know a bit of grammar you’ll write dreadfully because you really don’t know when/ if you’re getting it right. And you sure won’t be able to play around with your words if you don’t know the fundamentals of putting them together.

But let me tell you a story. It’s not a pretty story….

After surviving 7th Grade in the purgatory known as Oley Junior High (in Huntington, WV) - a place so predatory that when it was mercifully torn down a bit later it remained an empty parking lot for decades - I suspect because ‘they’ couldn’t find a Medicine Man with enough Mojo to clear the nastiness of the place. Did I mention I did not enjoy my year at Oley?

Then next year, I began a sojourn at Cammack Junior High and ran afoul of Catherine Venerables! - whose name, I believe, is legend - at least among the students who survived a year in her English class.

Or maybe it was just me. I can’t really be sure….

At the start of that school year I was still 13 (a bit younger than most of my peers), small, skinny and in a tizz starting my 2nd new school in two years. For reasons that make no sense to me TPTB (The Powers That Be) decided to place me in the toughest, most demanding English class (and Math class, but that’s another story!). Given that my 7th Grade English teacher spent most of the year chasing unruly kids (usually the boys) around the room with her wooden paddle flailing the air I can only imagine that in relation to most of the students I must have looked akin to a whiz kid (I could read and that put me a couple notches above most of my peers).

Now I don’t mean that some Oley JHS grads didn’t managed to learn something - I met a few who had brains - but that the sheer nuttiness of the place made it difficult to learn. In theory a bright kid can thrive and learn in a gutter, BUT it’s hard to reach your potential while floundering in the muck….

Anyway, Catharine started us with outlining sentences.

But I didn’t know the difference between a subject and a predicate. I had never even heard the words or if I had no one had ever hinted at what they might mean. And then there were nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, participles and something called the Passive Voice. I managed to comprehend that nouns and verbs did different things and that adjectives and adverbs ‘modified’ other words although I was a little vague as to the differences between the two. Plus I read at a glacial pace (still do, for that matter).

If my memory is correct, I survived the first quarter with a C and went down from there. By Christmas, I had floundered so that even being generous Catharine could only give me a D-. I suppose any sane teacher would have sent me packing to another class, but Catharine was nothing but persistent. Plus, she had gone to school with my mother and after a series of (increasingly desperate) meetings a Secret Solution was proposed.

Since I had not managed to ‘get’ Algebra my father had arranged for me to be tutored by one of his co-workers, an engineer who guided me through the math maze until I ‘got’ it - an event that literally happened between one session and another - but that’s another story. Somehow (and for reasons I don’t fathom even now) Catharine agreed to tutor me…. So once a week I received a guided lesson that tried to move me through the labyrinth of the English language. In class - no mercy…. Tutoring - persistent guidance and gentle drilling. And she did this at risk since the Board of Education looked askance upon teachers who helped their students outside of class…. But, if anything, she treated me with greater rigor in class!

I finished the year with a C (or maybe a C-) and the next year TPTB relegated me to a Bonehead English class located in the basement of the school where most of my fellow students spent their time pitching paper wads into the light fixtures - by the end of the school year the place seemed as dark as a dungeon. But even so the teacher managed to terrify the students enough to maintain order and actually tried to teach - a good change from Oley, if not exactly up to C. Venerables expectations.

By my Senior year of HS (3 years later) I had moved slowly up the ladder to a notch below the top - up with SOxley (one of a pair of sisters, FOxley who taught History and SOxley, English - both good people… I learned from each).

But I still didn’t manage Passive Voice.

College helped a bit.

But I would still get papers back with ‘Use Active Voice’ scrawled in red. Which made no particular sense given that no one could explain to me what ‘Active Voice’ was, especially in relation to ‘Passive Voice.’

The years passed….

When I was about 40 (or perhaps 50) some One - who? I wonder - said, “Passive Voice? That’s just using the ‘to be’ verb all the time.”


So… it is when I use ‘is’ or ‘was’ or ‘were’ or ‘had been’ (although ‘had Ben?’ could be just fine - ya gotta love English…) - is that it?

Hmm… no…. There’s a bit more to it than that.

Here’s the definition of Passive Voice from the University of North Carolina (the first place I found on the internet…): “A passive construction occurs when you make the object of an action into the subject of a sentence. That is, whoever or whatever is performing the action is not the grammatical subject of the sentence.”

So now we know…. But….

Jim FitzPatrick 2010 08-26

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