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.

25 thoughts on “The Grammar Grandma Rides Again

  1. Thank you! I remember fondly, my language arts and english teachers. But, until now I have never really understood what they we getting at. Your examples are very easy to understand. I am pretty sure I would not have gotten an A in any of those teachers classes. Adiu, until the next grammer lesson.

  2. Thank you for my Friday dose of J. A. Jance. Today this included laughter. My English lessons started in third grade and I did not remember them as much as I should have. Bless Mrs. McCarthy though, she tried. The idea of Colt calling you his Grammar Grandma is sweet. I might be known as the Research Gram. My granddaughters smile when I suggest that they research what they are wondering about. Being a Grandma is a very good thing. I am also imagining your need to use your red pen on my reply.

  3. I am bemoaning the death of the adverb. You don’t do something quick, you do it quickly. I read this and hear this frequently (not frequent).

  4. I’m thinking if I used your example my students would for sure sit up in their desks, maybe move their eyes off their phones, take out their earbuds, and learn the difference between a gerund and a participle!

  5. As a fellow “Grammar Grandma,” I recently completed a quiz online. I was told I was incorrect in using “among” with more that two objects. I thought perhaps rules had changed as it’s been awhile since I took or taught an English class. Sometimes rules are not followed so consistently that “incorrect” is accepted as “correct” or standard usage. Thanks for your post. I will cheerfully continue to use”among” when appropriate and to h— with the rule breakers!

  6. What a great post! As a former secretary, I find myself correcting spelling and grammar in articles posted by various newspapers or TV networks (I’ve been known to suggest their headline writers take a grammar class). I’m sure none of them could diagram a sentence if their lives depended on it.

  7. My son is the family grammar police. Even his texts are complete sentences with punctuation. He speaks in complete sentences. He’s bugged by different than . We had a talk about that.
    FYI
    When in doubt, stick with different from. However, note that there is a time and place for different than. When what follows is a clause, than can be the more elegant choice: My grandmother looks different than I remember. From works best when what follows is a noun or noun phrase: My grandmother looks different from that old photograph of her. (A copy/paste)

  8. This article reminded me of my sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Loundagin. We spent many days (at least in my memory) diagraming sentences. I would hope I could still do it correctly. Another influence would be Miss Detlaf, our kids grade school eighth grade teacher. You never end a sentence with a preposition. Even writing emails, I reread the material and catch myself with improper sentence structure. I do correct it for my own satisfaction.
    Now how sad is it that my grandsons are not taught cursive and can’t read my notes written in their cards. Cursive is going the way of hieroglyphics. (And thank you, spell check!)

  9. Thanks for the trip down “Grammar” lane. My dad was a sixth grade teacher and I had him for sixth grade. He also was the master of diagramming sentences! Oh how I hated that back then! Today I have come to appreciate breaking down all those sentences.

  10. Thank you, thank you, thank you. It is refreshing to see someone else notices the atrocious ways the English (American, in some cases) language is used. Newscasters are the ones who drive me crazy. It’s as though they never finished third grade. I learned English the same way you did. Thank you for this post.

  11. Ode to a Grecian Urn is a poem by John Keats, not Shakespeare. But I guess it wouldn’t do to correct Miss Reavis. Loved the post. Still can’t diagram a sentence.

  12. Love this post. It drives me crazy when supposedly intelligent people speak or write so grammatically incorrect. I had grammar classes both in high school and business school, so I had it coming on all sides.

    One of the worst is the misuse of the word myself. I was taught that it should be used only with the pronoun I to stress your point. So many times I hear it used instead of I, like myself and my friends went away.

  13. I remember Mrs. Bruce, my 9th grade English teacher, who taught me diagramming sentences. Everyone was afraid of her, but I’m so glad she taught me about sentence structure and parts of speech.

  14. I loved diagramming sentences. I also catch errors in publications and broadcasts. I edit well the writings of others. My kids had to grow up with an English major mother, as did I. One of my personal peeves is people who use “less” and “fewer” incorrectly. Your Friday blogs are all so great, but I especially liked
    this one. Keep up the good work.

  15. Oh, how I loved your column! From one Grammar Grandma to another…I often post grammar bits on my FB page, too. I used to do it under the Nomme de plume of Grammar Nazi, but I discarded that nomenclature after Charlottesville. I taught English language and literature for 30 years in Northern Nevada, and while I doubt that any of my students would describe me as vividly as you have described your teachers, I too was a stickler for precise language. In fact, at one time when my senior classes attacked the local newspaper for an ungrammatical headline, our letter to the editor raised the ire of a competitor, who wrote in his column that it was a waste of tax payer money to have “college” students arguing about silly language questions. Ah ha! Teachable moment! I brought that column to class and invited those who wished to to respond: this required learning the format of a business letter, etc. After receiving numerous letters from my students defending good grammar, this columnist requested that I “call off the dogs.” This in turn generated a response from me that my high school (not college) students were not, in fact, dogs, and they were free to write whatever and however much they wished. I still stay in touch with many of those students from 1980.

  16. I, too, loved diagraming sentences and only much later realized the reason for doing this. One of my Osawatomie High School English teachers, Deana McClure, is celebrating her 100th birthday this month, and hundreds of people have her to thank for being able to write a decent sentence! Your great grammar is one reason I love your books. I don’t have to read them with a red editing pencil in hand.

    One more comment…Dreft is actually a gentle laundry detergent marketed especially for baby clothes, not a dishwashing soap, although maybe it could be used for that.

    • Dreft was originally a dish washing soap. I used it often as a teenager when hand washing the dishes. When automatic dishwashers became popular, Dreft changed their marketing to washing baby items because “it’s so gentle on the skin.”

  17. Oh my, I had teachers like that and I loved English and grammar. Well, I was a nerd and I loved anything to do with school.

    Today I had to write a short memoir to a dear friend who died this week. Another of our mutual friends and I went thru grade school and high school together and were neighbors. She was a Grammar Hound even back in those days. Always never missed a chance to correct me if I by chance screwed up.

    As I was writing the memoir this morning I made sure I double checked every word, comma, and meaning before emailing it to her to approve.

    I like being a Grammar Nazi, and I even miss diagramming sentences. I don’t think they do that any more.

  18. Mr. Murray was my Miss Shreve. Black wool suits, white long-sleeved shirts, black skinny ties, and white socks. Buddy Holly glasses.

  19. Another comment: I hate when all young people are putting “me” before someone else in a sentence. “The coach yelled at me and Tom.” ?!? I recently read that there’s no rule that says it must be “The coach yelled at Tom and me.” When did that happen?!

  20. I love it when your writings refresh my memories. Yes, I was the diagram queen throughout junior and senior high school.

    As a high school science teacher, I still mark up the glaring writing errors of my students.

    What I receive in return from them is, “you’re not an English teacher! ” Go figure…

    (I wanted to use the word ‘get’ rather than ‘receive’ but it is still pounded in my head from my 10th English teacher to never use any form of the word ‘get’.)

  21. I’m smiling! Sometimes I mentally try to diagram a sentence when I’m reading; I think it’s because it sounds awkward to me. Punctuation has always been my bug-a-boo. I used to do medical transcription, in class it was “don’t worry about punctuation”, turned out punctuation was the first thing hammered on for accuracy scoring. I ended up buying a book to study up on it to raise my score. I took a college English class that wasn’t very helpful. I suggested to the teacher that she use actual physician dictation because that would be way more useful than the short and simple sentences in the workbook. No physician dictates like that on a regular basis.
    Frankly I wonder what is being taught in school these days. My second grade granddaughter was spelling phonetically instead of correctly. Why not teach properly instead of correcting years later, so much harder to unlearn. As far as cursive, I handed my notes, for my home health client, to the ambulance attendant and he gave them back to me saying he could not read them. Be sure to print any contact information, drug names, etc for emergency personnel. It’s pretty scary out there.

  22. My husband finds me often talking back to the television that between is 2 and among is three or more. In addition, in watching a Hallmark series, I have been appalled that him was used by a character twice as a subject pronoun rather than he. My husband then tells me I am probably one of the few who noticed. To make it more egregious to me, it was a series taken from a writer’s romance series of books. Then also in print, in various articles, there are the mix ups of their and they’re and there or your and you’re. Unfortunately, I could go on and on.

  23. Loved reading this blog. Unfortunately for me, my English teacher spent the entire class telling jokes [Is it farther to Alaska or by bus?], picking on kids in his class (he didn’t like), then giving us tests based on the chapters we never discussed. Of course, all the kids thought he was cool cuz he was the only person in the whole small town who drove a Corvette. I wish I had had English teachers like yours! 🙂

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