The Grammar Grandma Rides Again

Long ago, in Bisbee, Arizona, I’d be finishing up wiping the breakfast dishes and getting ready to walk to school when the morning radio talk show, Arlo and Ray, was signing off.  The commercial that came on next was for Dreft, a powdered dish soap.  Because Dreft was my mother’s choice of dish soap, I always paid attention.  It went like this.  “Here comes my mother-in-law, and did she make me burn.”  It would appear that said mother-in-law, in attempting to school her daughter-in-law on the right choice of dish soap, would pour Dreft in one hand and the daughter-in-law’s choice of soap in the other to see which hand suffered the most from the ensuing chemical burns.

My son and daughter-in-law Kathleen came to visit this past weekend.  First off, I love Kathleen to pieces.  Having raised four boys mostly on her own, she is not exactly a shrinking violet.  She works as the manager of community outreach for a network of credit unions in eastern Washington, Idaho, and Montana.  Naturally she and her co-workers are currently working mostly from home.  She was telling us about a series of chats that had devolved into something that could have been considered unseemly had it gone viral.  When I mentioned that, she said it wan’t a problem—that it was just a conversation between the five of us.”

Oops.  Like the mother-in-law from hell handing out fistfuls of Dreft, I couldn’t help myself.  I signaled an immediate pause in the conversation to point out that between is used when there are only two alternatives.  Among is used when there are three or more.  An example of two would be found in the phrase,  “between me and thee.”  (By the way, between is a preposition.  Objects of prepositions must be in the OBJECTIVE CASE!!!  In other words, it has to be between you or me or or between him and me (objective case) rather than between he and I (subjective case.).  An example of three or more alternatives would be “among us seven kids” rather than “among we seven kids.”  These days most of the kids being taught what’s currently referred to  language arts have never heard of prepositions to say nothing of objective or subjective cases—probably because their teachers weren’t ever taught them, either.

With that momentary grammatical interruption handled, the conversation continued unabated, and I don’t believe there was any permanent damage to Kathleen’s and my DIL/MIL relationship. As to whatever happened to that young woman on the radio, the one left standing there with her handfuls of powdered soap?  I’m not so sure.

But getting back to grammar, Colt calls me his Grammar Grandma, a title I am more than happy to claim as my own.  Although I didn’t necessarily appreciate it at the time, I attended Bisbee High School during a golden era where we had utterly outstanding English teachers.  Mrs. Riggins was kind but very precise, and when she marked up one of your papers with her red pencil, she expected you to pay attention.  Miss Reavis, who hailed from Mexico, Missouri, loved Shakespeare beyond measure.  Under her firm direction we were all required to stand and recite the Ode to A Grecian Urn … or else!  (I believe, some of the people who suffer from a lifetime of poetry-induced PTSD probably had their own versions of Miss Reavis lingering somewhere in their past lives.)

Miss Shreve was the diagramming dictator.  You had to be able to take a sentence apart, putting it on the applicable lines, and see what word, clause, or phrase modified what.  She was the one who unlocked the mysteries of the differences between gerunds and participles.  Gerunds are ing words used as nouns.  Participles are ing words used as adjectives.  Years ago, Bill and I went to the Seattle Rep to see Tom Stoppard’s play, The Real Thing.  In it, a curmudgeonly English professor’s sweet young thing of a wife has fallen for another man while off on a whale-saving expedition.  When they return, and the professor learns what’s happened, he pitches a fit by saying, “F… the whales.  Save the gerund.”  Two things about that statement.  1:  Using the first letter of a bad word and spaces for the rest and allowing the reader to fill in the blanks is a trick I learned from reading Zane Grey novels when I was in the sixth and seventh grades.  2:  Only three people in the theatre laughed at that bit of dialogue—Bill and I, along with a woman somewhere in the audience far behind us. No doubt she, too, had someone not unlike Miss Shreve buried in her past life.

Just in case some of you are still a bit mystified about the difference between gerunds and participles, and because I, too, want to save the gerund, I’m going to go out on a limb here and serve up a pair of examples. And because I suspect most of my readers are what could be called “consenting adults,” I’ll warn you in advance that they might be considered for MA (mature audiences) rather than the PG-13 version.  And once again, you’ll need to fill in the missing letters on your own:  Gerund:  “F…ing is fun.”  In this case F…ing is an ing word used as a noun and as the subject of the sentence.  Participle:  No f…ing way you’re going to do that!  In this case, f…ing is an ing word used as an adjective to modify the noun way.  Got it?  Never in a million years would Miss Shreve have used that example, but it makes the point and from now on you’ll KNOW the difference between the two.  (Between as opposed to among, see paragraph 3 above.)

Back at good old BHS, once you made it past Miss Shreve, it was time for Mrs. “Hell’s bells, you hounds!” Medigovich.  She was a tall, striking woman with coal black hair which she wore coiled like a snake at the back of her neck.  She had narrow, hawkish features and a prominent mole in the middle of a very sharp chin.  In other words, she was not a beauty, but she dressed like a fashion-plate in stylish knit sheaths, strode through life with her hips out-thrust like an Old West gunslinger, and was never, not once—not even at our senior picnic—seen in public without wearing a pair of high heels.  Her classes were conducted with an iron fist, and if you said something stupid, or if you just weren’t getting what she was telling you, she would rap her knuckles on the black board and bellow those famous words, “Hell’s bells, you hounds, don’t you know anything?’

So yes, we may have been terrified at the time, but if you walked away from Mrs. Medigovich’s senior English class with an A, you could pretty well expect to find yourself in an honors English class wherever you ended up going to college.

Nearly sixty years later, the words of all those long-ago English teachers still linger and rule my life.  They molded me into what I am—a writer—and something of a grammar evangelist, if you will.

When Colt calls me his Grammar Grandma, I consider it a badge of honor, one I wear with pride.

I just hope Kathleen can forgive me.