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  • LINDA L. ZERN

Happy Grammar


Mark Twain wrote a beautiful essay about “Two Ways to See a River.” He complained that by becoming an expert at something and while you do gain knowledge, that knowledge comes at the sacrifice of wonder. It’s a beautiful piece of writing because it happens to be true. Becoming a writer with hundreds of thousands of words in your portfolio is like that. It gets harder and harder to read a book riddled with examples of author intrusion. (See! Says the author! Between the lines--sort of. What I’m telling you in this part of the story is that this is the bad guy, who is so terrible that he eats kittens! I mean it! Nod your head if you get it.) Or when an author uses an excessive use of attributes and adverbs, she interjected snidely, moistly, or urgently. But it gets worse. You start hearing the flaws not just in the written word but also in the speechifying of regular people you’ve been married to for decades—namely spouse types. For example: My husband of thirty-plus years, the world-renowned computer analyst, has an expression he uses over and over again when he’s losing an argument with me. He likes to say, “Oh, get off it!” It’s his favorite point to my counter-point. All I can think when he uses this phrase during a marital tiff is that the subject ‘you’ is implied, as in, "Oh, you, get off it!" But doesn't he know that you is a genuinely vague pronoun? So vague that I assume he’s talking to himself and not to me when he uses it. You who? Getting off of what? See the problem? I can imagine that what he's saying in the heat of the debate is something like this. “Oh, Sherwood, get off it!” Yeah, how about that, Sherwood? Please note: My husband's first name is Sherwood--like the forest. Crazy right? Get off of that. And his use of the verb “get,” is also extremely weak in this sentence. Get is one of the weakest of the verbs. My advice to my husband to jazz up his prickly but vague command to me as he goes down in angry flames is to strengthen that puny verb by turning the word get into an action verb of the rip-roaring kind. “Oh, Sherwood, drive off it!” “Oh, Sherwood, flip off it!” “Oh, Sherwood, fling off it!” “Oh, Sherwood, shove off it!” While we're at it, what about that pronoun it? What it? Who's it? Concrete nouns are the building blocks of a rude, thorny sentence, so I’d suggest replacing that pronoun with something sharp-edged and brittle—something resembling a chunk of word cement. Maybe something like this: “Oh, Sherwood, pole vault off that Saguaro cactus.” Or “Oh, Sherwood, shove off that red hot poker.” But this takes us into the land of adjectives and advanced description—and that’s a tightrope I’d rather not walk right now. So, like Mark Twain, I’ve lost the wonder and awe of my husband’s forceful, manly instructions to me during a verbal brawl, and I can only register the grammar funk of his dopey sentence. Thank you, Mark Twain, for helping me understand the price of knowledge. And like Mr. Twain, I appreciate the irony of loss and gain. “Since those days [as a riverboat captain] I have pitied doctors from my heart. What does the lovely flush in a beauty's cheek mean to a doctor but a "break" that ripples above some deadly disease? Are not all her visible charms sown thick with what are to him the signs and symbols of hidden decay? Does he ever see her beauty at all, or doesn't he simply view her professionally, and comment upon her unwholesome condition all to himself? And doesn't he sometimes wonder whether he has gained most or lost most by learning his trade?” [Mark Twain, “Two Ways to See a River”] Ahhh, Mr. Twain, those poor doctors, and computer systems analysts . . . Linda (Grammar Witch) Zern

#reading #writing #lessons #Twain #Twaingrammarfunk #grammar

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