"Best" and "worst" experiences involving grammar?
June 8, 2010 8:42 AM   Subscribe

"Best" and "worst" experiences involving grammar and learning grammar? I think we were asked to write this to increase empathy, but I can't think of anything with any emotional weight, so I thought I'd ask for your experiences. Please answer especially if you had a difficult time with grammar.

Did you have a memorable experience involving learning or using grammar, English or otherwise?

I would like to understand better the degree to which, and ways in which, grammar affects people emotionally.

Although this is related to a non-credit class assignment, I promise you're not doing my "homework" for me (it's not for a grade, and I won't pretend this is my own life). I was asked to write a paragraph each about my best and worst experience with grammar. Maybe something will jog my memory of an experience I had, but, more importantly, I might be teaching English as a second language sometime in the future, so this isn't just an idle exercise. I hope it will help me be a more empathetic, and better, teacher.

Did someone make your life better by correcting your punctuation? Did you have a big fight about commas before "and" in a list? Were you embarrassed to discover incorrect grammar on a résumé? Did diagramming sentences light up your summer? Are you a run-on sentence rebel? I'm looking for some stories to help me "get" it on a gut level, but don't hold back if yours is only a small incident.

I hope this isn't too chat-filtery. I guess I'm really asking: what stories will help me become an empathetic teacher of English grammar?
posted by amtho to Human Relations (31 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I loved grammar. I still love grammar. It is a problem because now I'm a grown-up and I judge. Grammar was always instinctual for me. That being said, I was into writing as a kid (and, well, now), and it would frustrate me to no end when a teacher would correct non-mistakes like purposeful sentence fragments or incorrect-grammar-in-dialogue in a story when I had made the explicit decision to do those things. I'm not talking about first grade when everyone's learning the basics--I'm talking about middle school and high school. I guess the moral of this story is to not underestimate students.

Also, I think the best and easiest way to learn grammar is to do a lot of reading.
posted by millipede at 8:56 AM on June 8, 2010

When learning Korean, the way the language handles what in English would be relative clauses drove me crazy. For example, the sentence "I saw that man who is driving on the road at the store yesterday" would be "Yesterday at the store on the road driving man saw." It took me a long time to rewire my brain to think, and speak, that way.
posted by smorange at 8:56 AM on June 8, 2010

Thank you! These are good. I'm kind of with you, millipede: I was lucky enough to read a lot as a child, so grammar came easily for me. But I don't know that I *love* it.
posted by amtho at 9:04 AM on June 8, 2010

(1) One of the worst: We had a unit on grammar in my high-school English class, where we were learning parts of speech. Of course, we had learned that a noun is a person, place, or thing. And we had learned that a pronoun is a general word that refers to a noun ("he" refers to a specific person, etc.). The teacher told us that "his" is a pronoun. I raised my hand and said, "Isn't it an adjective? It doesn't stand in for a noun. It modifies a noun: 'his boat.'" The teacher didn't seem to have considered this point, and she simply repeated that it's a pronoun. (If I was wrong, I wanted to know why I was wrong.)

(2) One of the best: I took a linguistics class in college where the professor showed us this sentence:

"The dog the girl the boy knew saw ran away."

It's incomprehensible, but it's grammatical if you analyze it the right way. (The boy knew a girl -- "the girl the boy knew" -- and that girl saw a dog -- "the dog the girl ... saw" -- and "The dog ... ran away.") As I understood it, her point was: don't rely only on grammar. Grammatical correctness doesn't ensure clear writing. (from this thread)
posted by Jaltcoh at 9:13 AM on June 8, 2010 [3 favorites]

Memorizing conjugations of Hebrew verbs and lists of exceptions by rote was not only torturous as a kid, but it wasn't even that helpful. That's not how native speakers learn their own languages.
posted by callmejay at 9:14 AM on June 8, 2010

I think you're asking two different questions. People use the grammars of their native languages, so in a sense they already "know" them... The difficulty comes when they're asked to understand their grammar and perhaps modify it in accordance with some prescriptive rules. ESL learners, I imagine, have a vastly different relationship with English grammar.

As for a specific incident, I had a teacher in grade school tell me to think of "who/whom" along the lines of "he/him," and everything suddenly made sense.
posted by null14 at 9:16 AM on June 8, 2010

So I once had a teacher who told us never, ever to start any sentence with any of the following four words: AND; SO; BUT; THEN.

And for the whole of a forty minute lesson, at his request, we drew pictures of people being gored, crucified and undergoing other horrendous deaths as they began sentences with those words. Then we stuck them on the wall of the classroom, where they remained in all their macabre glory for several weeks. But fair play to him, I never forgot that class and it was quite fun at the time.
posted by MuffinMan at 9:25 AM on June 8, 2010 [17 favorites]

I was lucky enough to read a lot as a child, so grammar came easily for me.

Ahhahahaha. All I did as a kid was read and my grammar is still atrocious. Because grammar is BORING and weird and confusing and arbitrary. Unless of course we're talking about context free grammars, that shit is fascinating. My mom worked as an editor. She would try to explain this stuff to me, when she was helping me with my homework. All I would hear is "blahblahblah Do this thing this way, except when you don't. Also you figure out when you don't do that by using magic. blahblahblah". So, yeah. Grammar it's hard, because people just MAKE UP RULES. In all seriousness posting on Metafilter has improved my grammar more than anything I've done outside of the internet, because there's a measurable visible effect that making my meaning clearer has on the conversation in a thread.
posted by edbles at 9:26 AM on June 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

we drew pictures of people being gored, crucified and undergoing other horrendous deaths as they began sentences with those words.

At my private school, we learned to diagram sentences that, in the end, were a narrative that involved a woman named Bertha who liked hitting people with a frying pan. Not cartoonishly, either, but involving clotting blood and grievous head-wounds.

Latin grammar used to pain me, but when I went to college, I had to take German for my studies. All of a sudden the dative was being helpful! So the best experience was that going through it painfully once led to everything since then being easier.
posted by cobaltnine at 9:32 AM on June 8, 2010

I had no grammar. I loved and read a lot of literature. I wrote many critical papers for college courses. I got top grades. Then I went on to grad school, still with little grammar. My favorite teacher, a linguist in background, though a lit teacher too, would mark my papers and note that my ideas were very sharp but my writing was terrible. He warned me that I needed to learn to write better, but left it at that, giving me an A for the course.

Finally, got to the point of writing a dissertation. Each piece of writing I would turn in got carefully marked up, every sentence with problems, noted, though not changed. I was told to fi it up and turn it in again when it was in decent shape.

Finally, I was forced into doing some serious learning and re-writing in order to get my work accepted.
In sum: many students do not write decent papers because they choke up in their writing if they are aware or have been told that their writing is in need of improvement. Many teachers fail to do the job that they need to do by simply telling a student his writing is "bad" instead of showing precisely where and why it is less than effective.
posted by Postroad at 9:36 AM on June 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

I didn't learn to diagram sentences until college. I spent the first seven years of my educated life in a private school especially for Russian Jewish immigrants; we never, never diagrammed. Apparently, everyone else my age, who went to school in the public system, learned to diagram.

So, when it came to my Grammar & Stylistics class in college, I had a hell of a time. I think I cried a few times. Not only was it frustrating because I didn't Get It, but it was doubly frustrating because my peers had had the previous experience I didn't to help them Get It. It sounds ridiculous, but I felt so disadvantaged and angry.

Then again, I harbor deep resentment for many aspects of my yeshiva education. That experience in particular just drew them out.
posted by litnerd at 9:42 AM on June 8, 2010

Neither my father nor my grandmother is able to write fluently in English (though they are both native speakers.)

My father completely avoids writing to me by hand, the one exception is the packing slip on a recent birthday present--his short message to me is nearly meaningless.

My grandmother's letters are composed of long, run-on sentences that don't entirely make sense. She repeats herself using different phrasing, erases and re-writes until there are holes in the paper--I often cry when I receive her letters because of her self-consciousness, her nervousness, the effort that she has to make just to recount a simple family story so that it can be preserved in writing.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 9:45 AM on June 8, 2010

Easily my worst experience was repeated every year, and that would be when the teacher was out and had the sub get out the grammar books. We never used those things unless we needed to fill time. Coming in a close second was how most of my teachers would assume we learned something last year and would end up having to teach it to us because we either were never taught it or were taught it in such a rush that we didn't remember.

Best for me was my last two years of high school where we wrote all the time and learned grammar from correcting our papers. If everyone got it we didn't waste class time, and we learned some stuff that other classes didn't because of our mistakes.
posted by theichibun at 9:46 AM on June 8, 2010

A college professor of mine shared that she used to cut up her papers into individual sentences, throw them on the floor, then pick up each sentence individually in random order to make sure they each made sense on their own.

I had nightmares about her doing this to each of my papers.

Also, I love to diagram sentences.
posted by fyrebelley at 9:55 AM on June 8, 2010

I raised my hand and said, "Isn't it an adjective? It doesn't stand in for a noun. It modifies a noun: 'his boat.'" The teacher didn't seem to have considered this point, and she simply repeated that it's a pronoun. (If I was wrong, I wanted to know why I was wrong.)

One of my best grammar experiences was a class I took a decade or so ago for my own amusement at a nearby college, called "Modern Grammar." Ha ha I thought to myself, how can grammar have changed? And then the whole class was learning to make tree diagrams--a fancy new-fangled way to diagram sentences--and one of the beauties of the tree diagram is that it can resolve ambiguities like, "this is a noun but it's acting like an adjective in this sentence." It was so cool.
posted by not that girl at 9:56 AM on June 8, 2010

As a person who learned proper grammar and who learned to speak and write in complete sentences, I cannot use Twitter or texting in the shorthand style for which they are intended. It takes longer for me to think of the shorter "u" than to just type "you". The texts that I exchange with my children are complete sentences and often paragraphs. They think it's hysterical. I just can't do the condensation.

You can decide if that's a "good" or a "bad" experience with grammar.
posted by CathyG at 9:57 AM on June 8, 2010 [3 favorites]

When I was seven or eight (and still had a shaky handle on grammer) I wrote a letter to my grandmother updating her on what was going on in my life and telling her I missed her. She corrected it and sent it back to me.

I don't remember writing to her much after that; the message I got is that the form of the letter was more important than the sentiment.
posted by workerant at 10:00 AM on June 8, 2010

Oh bloody hell - it's grammar!
posted by workerant at 10:01 AM on June 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

it can resolve ambiguities like, "this is a noun but it's acting like an adjective in this sentence."

See, my feeling is that the whole definition of a part of speech is that it's about how a word functions in a sentence. So I don't understand saying that something is ___ "but acts like an adjective in this sentence." If the definition of an adjective is "a word that modifies a noun," then anything that "acts" like an adjective is an adjective.
posted by Jaltcoh at 10:01 AM on June 8, 2010

I was a huge reader as a kid but have always struggled with grammar. I would fail the grammar portion of English class but get a A-/B+ for the year based on my other work. I remember discussing how weird this was with my 7th and 8th grade English teacher and he assured me that I must have some innate understanding of grammar because I tended to use it properly when writing and speaking. Anyway, it's still incredibly frustrating and I still suck at Mad Libs. I sure it's one of the reasons that I've always have difficulty learning a foreign lanuguage. If you have difficulty diagramming a sentance in your native language than you're not going to have any better luck in French or Italian. I would really love to take the Modern Grammar class that NTG mentions above...maybe I could finally get over my fear of diagramming sentences. I've broken out in a cold sweat just thinking about it.
posted by victoriab at 10:15 AM on June 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

This is why I love Metafilter - until today I had never heard of diagramming a sentence.

My best/worst grammar memory is of my grade 4 teacher stating that you could never start a sentence with because. As an avid reader, I knew this was incorrect and pointed it out. She did not take kindly to this. This is the 'worst' part of the memory. There is something horrible about a teacher not believing you when you know you're right.

I think I spent about four hours that night going through all of my books until I found an example. Finding the example in a published book was definitely the 'best' part of the memory.

My apologies for the grammatical errors that may be in this post. I tended to disregard most of my teachers' comments on grammar after that incident.
posted by valoius at 10:42 AM on June 8, 2010

I remember learning how to use quotation marks for dialogue in elementary school. I was an avid reader, so of course I'd already run across this concept. When I was asked to write an example sentence, I wrote something along the lines of:

"Get up," my mom said, "or you'll be late!"

My teacher tried to tell me that I was wrong, that I couldn't use quotes before "my mom said" or I'd confuse people. After that, I stopped listening to most of my teachers.
posted by reductiondesign at 10:54 AM on June 8, 2010

I raised my hand and said, "Isn't it an adjective? It doesn't stand in for a noun. It modifies a noun: 'his boat.'"

There is a story by James Thurber called Here Lies Miss Groby, which is basically about an English teacher who is much more interested in dissecting language than in the beauty of it. It might be a useful reference for the OP.
posted by anastasiav at 11:09 AM on June 8, 2010

The verbs of motion in Russian made me cry.

They are very, very, very hard to learn. I think I still have residual trauma from it. All the teachers I had were sympathetic to this as apparently the verbs of motion are the most difficult thing to learn in Russian for foreign speakers.

To try to give you an idea:

"Russian motion verbs (bottom of the page) convey more details than the English motion verbs, Russian verbs of motion tell you how the action was carried out (on foot or by vehicle), and also the direction (round-trip or one-way, one-time trip). Russian verbs of motion are broken down into three aspects: the progressive imperfective (only in the present tense), the interactive imperfective, and the perfective."

In other words, to say, "I am going to the store," in Russian could be, "I am walking to the store (and implied not coming back/not completing the roundtrip), or "I am driving/riding to the store (and implied not coming back/not completing the roundtrip)" or "I am walking to the store (and implied coming back/completing the roundtrip), or "I am driving/riding to the store (and implied coming back/completing the roundtrip)."

There's also, "I entered the door (but haven't come out)" or "I entered the door (and already came back out.)" and, "I'm going for a drive/walk (without any destination)," and on and on.

All of the teachers I had were very sympathetic to this, and one of the best I had demonstrated the verbs by entering and exiting the classroom and having us tell her what she just did, what she was doing, and so forth. But I don't think I ever was able to keep them all straight.
posted by zizzle at 11:16 AM on June 8, 2010

"See, my feeling is that the whole definition of a part of speech is that it's about how a word functions in a sentence. So I don't understand saying that something is ___ "but acts like an adjective in this sentence." If the definition of an adjective is "a word that modifies a noun," then anything that "acts" like an adjective is an adjective."

That is absolutely true. I had figured that not that girl was referring to compound nouns (noun+noun constituents) versus adjective+noun constituents. Where a "noun acting like an adjective" is actually two nouns forming a compound.

As it happens, these concepts generally end up affecting written English grammar in the placement of some commas (which I'll mention at the end).


1. If you have the phrase "walking stick", you can think of this as the pole or stick (noun) used by people to assist them in walking (noun) -- in this case "walking" and "stick" are both nouns that have been combined into a compound noun. Usually, in a compound noun phrase like this, the first word in the phrase gets the primary stress: WALKing stick. (Of course compounds aren't only formed as noun+noun, but that's not important here.)

2. You can also look at "walking stick" as a stick that is actually walking (by magic, or whatever); by understanding the phrase this way, you have parsed it as an adjective ("walking") plus a noun ("stick"). Usually, with adj+n combos, it is the noun that gets the primary stress: walking STICK.

The effect on formal English grammar and the placement of commas is shown when an adjective is added to the front of the phrase:

If I add the adjective "large" to the phrase "walking stick" as it is meant in (1), I do not put a comma after "large": "The large walking stick."

If I do the same with the phrase with the meaning of (2), then I should put a comma: "The large, walking stick."
posted by kosmonaut at 11:34 AM on June 8, 2010 [1 favorite]


I took a course in science writing in college where they explained that a lot of the "rules" you learn in high school are not actually rules, but crutches. For example, starting a sentence with 'And' or 'Because' is not grammatically incorrect (but it is easier to write a sentence fragment if you start with one of those words). Neither is ending a sentence with a preposition. Grammar is supposed to be about writing clearly, not torture.


I spent my senior year of high school in a German high school where EVERYTHING I turned in, including math, was graded for grammar. I routinely lost all of the grammar points and it traumatized me about my German writing ability (even though I have, since then, done tech support in German and been mistaken for a native speaker). Part of the problem was that I picked up the native speaker grammar mistakes without losing some of the non-native speaker ones I had, so tests were a special form of hell. Most comical point: they had me take English due to a random graduation requirement from my home high school and the English teacher made a point of telling me that I had excellent grammar "for an American."
posted by eleanna at 12:15 PM on June 8, 2010

One of my favourite grammar memories is taking French Language classes while on exchange at a university in France, where I was joining in the regular Linguistics program. The way the class worked is that the teacher would give examples of possible phrases, and the students had to either fill in the correct answer, or choose the correct answer from choices, or so on, and then they had to try and define the rule they were using. Most of the (native French) students in the class had trouble with it - this was all the stuff on the level of 'I dunno, it just has to be like that' but they would rarely actually be wrong about the answer. I only passed the class myself because the teacher graded me way more easily than the native kids, but I think I learned a ton.
posted by jacalata at 1:16 PM on June 8, 2010

In 7th grade our teacher taught us a sing-song way to remember all of the "helping" verbs, and I still remember it 30 years later...

Is Are
Was Were
Be Being Been Am
Do Does Did
Have Has Had
Can Could
Shall Should
Will Would
May Might Must

Not exactly grammar, but I have fond memories of the teacher.
posted by wwartorff at 3:28 PM on June 8, 2010

A friend told me this story the other day:
She was in a tutorial, and the class had an essay due in 2 weeks time. The tutor suggests that everyone swap their essay with the person next to them for some constructive feedback. The guy next to her gives her his essay to review - It's about Indigenous Australians. Every single time that he mentions Indigenous Australians in the essay he apostrophes the s in Australians (Australians').

So...she says to him, "hey, um, you now how you've used an apostrophe on the word Australians? That's not necessary. An apostrophe is to convey ownership". He replies "Ooooooh so I should put it BEFORE the S...". Her "um, no, not really. It's actually not needed at all, you're just speaking speaking about them as a group, like saying 'the neighborhood cats' or something. So you can just remove them". Him "Nah, I can't really be bothered, I think i'll just hand it in like this."

And he did. Even though it wasn't due for another 2 weeks, he just didn't get how big a deal it was. And I guess that's enforced by the fact that even though this was a GLARING grammatical error, the marking criteria for that particular essay only allocated 1 mark out of 50 (so 2% of the marks) to grammar!

So... I guess that mostly conveys how little regard (some) people have for grammar. Nevermind that it can completely change the WHOLE meaning of something!
posted by nothing too obvious at 4:19 PM on June 8, 2010

I am essentially formal grammar blind, and in school, I hated grammar.

And grammar, incarnate as my 7th and 8th grade English teachers, hated me right back.

When I read that rules of English grammar had been very fluid and malleable by modern standards, if they could be said to've existed at all, until fixation and codification mainly on models of Latin and Greek only in the 18th century (is this true, by the way?), I made a special point of noting to my 8th grade teacher during class once that the authors she told us were the greatest, Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton, had all produced their great work before this, and that could hardly be a coincidence, could it? Not to mention that it made nonsense of any claim that you had to know the rules of grammar to write well.

She retaliated by instituting a new rule in grading spelling tests that would count as wrong any word that had had to be erased or crossed out even if the final spelling was correct. This took my spelling grade from the top of the class-- I hadn't missed any all year-- to the bottom within a month, because in those days I couldn't write 10 words without adding an extra loop to an n or an m, or crossing an l instead of the t, dotting an e, or making the loop on a lower case g go the wrong way, turning it into a q.
posted by jamjam at 6:12 PM on June 8, 2010

I hated, hated, HATED diagramming sentences.

I had learned to read at a young age, and read voraciously. If I may say so myself, I had rather impeccable grammar skills as a child - I assume through reading so much. English class was a breeze. Up until 8th grade, I had never been asked to diagram a sentence - but then I switched schools. My English teacher at the new school loved sentence diagramming, and the other kids had learned it in 7th grade and more or less understood how it worked. I, meanwhile, was clueless in English class for the first time in my life. Not only was it frustrating to struggle with something in English class for the first time ever, but it seemed like such a pointless exercise. If I already understood what, say, indirect objects are, and I was always going to write sentences that used them properly, why on earth did it matter if I knew what sort of lines one used to connect an indirect object to a verb in a diagram? The whole thing just felt silly and terribly patronizing - it was like being taught to ride a bike with training wheels when you already know how to ride a regular bike, except worse because the training wheels themselves were making me fall.

I guess sentence diagramming isn't really all that difficult to learn, and I probably just was bad at it because I resented it, but I still shudder thinking about it. And I have absolutely no memory of how to do it anymore.
posted by naoko at 7:37 PM on June 8, 2010

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