Friday, July 1, 2011

I abuse grammar and punctuation to suit my whims

When it comes to good grammar, punctuation, and the like, I am an incredibly fickle beast. I'm a decent speller, though certain words seem to always give me trouble. For example: maintenance and sentence. I don't know what it is about the "ence" vs "ance" ending that gives me such fits, but it's a constant source of frustration. Also, guarantee. I guarantee that I have to think really hard to even come close to spelling that one right. I also want to point out that I've run "spell check" 4 times already in this post, and good for me, I got my trouble words right for once.

I don't really have a problem with most homophones in that I can pick the right one out of a line-up, although there is a story from my childhood that I retell quite frequently. It's about the day I came home from my first day of school in Texas and told my mother that I couldn't go back to school because my teachers were stupid. So, today's scenic detour takes us to New Braunfels, TX circa 1990. I was a bright, shiny 9 year old, just transferred from Navato, CA. It's January, and my first day in Language Arts, we were studying homophones. The teacher gives an example of words that sound alike but are spelled different (and for the life of me, it took forever before I could distinguish between those and homonyms or homographs, or whatever it is when the spelling is the same, but pronounced differently. I kept thinking of the example: read, reed, read and couldn't remember which was which). She wrote on the board READ (to read a book) and REED (some waterly plant thing) and then asked for other examples from the class. Things went really well at first. Students offered up BLUE and BLEW, RED and READ (thus cementing some of my homo-what? confusion which has nothing to do with sexual orientation). Then things started to get dicey. Someone raised their hand and offered... and in text this is much harder to do, because you'll see the error right away where as in real life, I was mystified until I saw it in writing. Oh, I digress. Here's what I heard:
"What about pin and pin?"
Me, thinking to myself as I am still The New Kid: um... what? Pin and pin? Is there another spelling for pin that I don't know? Does it mean something different? Am I going to learn a new vocabulary word?* Also, I didn't know "pin" had two syllables...
Teacher: Very good! (writes on the board PIN and PEN)
Me: um.... no

I was STUNNED. Shocked. I couldn't even believe what I was seeing. First, I understand that regional differences in pronunciation vary greatly, but in my head there was still "the right way to say words" and "everything else." So, of course, some other brave soul offered "tin" and "ten" up to be added to the list. So I sat quietly convinced that this class (not Texas in general, not even the town, just this class, this teacher) was too stupid for me to be a part of. Yeah, I was that kind of kid. And I went home and told my mother the story. I don't remember her response, but I do remember that I still had to go to school despite my reservations as to the intelligence of my teacher. Turns out there isn't a direct correlation between how you sound and how smart you are, despite popular culture and sterotypes. I did learn quite a lot in the Language Arts class after all. Like the fact that "proper" pronunciation** (as determined by... I guess Miriam Webster?) isn't required for a word to be considered a homophone. My dad even had a hard time with the names of my two best friends in highschool: Ginny and Jenny. To me, just like pin/pen, tin/ten there is a distinct difference. For him, not so much. And my dad is BRILLIANT, so... you know... there's that. Not that he couldn't tell the difference or couldn't pronounce the difference, it was just sort of a non-issue that there was a difference, you know? I'd say like the difference between the pink stuff & the blue stuff you put in your iced tea, but Dad was always a staunch supporter of the pink stuff, so that's not a good example. I can't think of a good example, but basically the two names were fungible in his head. Fungible is a word that he taught me, as is gesticulation. My dad is cool.

But I think I was talking about my own haphazard rules of grammar and punctuation.
  • My principal crimes:
  • Run-on sentences justified to myself by the over-use of commas
  • Blatant disregard for the semi-colon
  • Over use of ellipses
  • Perpetuating the double hyphen as a legitimate tool--for example, like this!
  • Misplaced modifiers and dangling prepositional phrases

Crimes I've been mostly cured of:
  • Ending a sentence with a preposition-though I admit, that the question, "Do you want to go with?" sounds perfectly fine to me and always has... you know what I mean, right?
  • Relying solely on spell check to catch my mistakes. I do actually try to proofread. I still make mistakes and then get 10 kinds of embarrassed that someone might think I MEANT to spell it that way and that sort of kills me a little inside, but then I fix it and get over it... mostly
I don't really have grammar pet peeves that I can think of at this exact moment so I'm going to go with the blanket assumption that I have none until such time as I see one and get all bent out of shape. Except homophones... those really get my bent out of shape...

*Smarty-pants side note--I ACED the vocabulary section of the "gifted and talented" assessment... what can I say, I like words. The spacial relations portion... well, that was less impressive

**also, I can't seem to spell this word right either. I've done it wrong both times--thanks Spell Check!


Bill McCurry said...

"From now on, ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put."

--W. Churchill

Barb said...

I love that story and I believe that both your Dad and I supported your belief that Tin & Ten and Pin & Pen are not necessarily homophones except in the South. But you did have to return to school with the knowledge that we did believe you were way smarter than the rest of the class and quite possibly the teacher in the area of spoken language.

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