In my neighborhood a house has been boarded up, its grass crispy and uncut, a stubble of weeds longer than a five o’clock shadow. The absent owner leaned an enormous piece of plywood against the side of the house where he crudely spray-painted the words, “Trespassers Will Be Prose.”
A slow walker will notice a faint attempt at including the letter C after the word Prose but for some reason the fullness of the threat never materialized. I smile whenever I walk by. In my imagination I have already scaled the chainlink fence and responded with my own spray-painted reply, “Visitors Will Be Poetry.”
As a former and currently retired English teacher, I learned to recognize when my students had a grasp on basic grammar by noticing who laughed after I posed this simple riddle in class: What’s the difference between a cat and a comma? Nobody would be laughing yet, not until I answered the riddle: One has its claws at the end of its paws, and the other is a pause at the end of a clause. At its root grammar is a kind of logic you shouldn’t have to memorize.
But everyone stumbles over language’s peculiarities, and no one needs to feel guilty about being exposed with his or her modifiers dangling. Nobody’s perfect, and nobody should seek that distinction. Once I asked a doctor before undergoing a medical procedure if a colonoscopy would interfere with my ability to punctuate correctly. He scratched his head, gave me a quizzical look, and immediately put me under. I swear I heard a round of applause in the background before I lost consciousness.
Misspellings are the most common errors, some of them simply typos, and many of them switched by a software’s auto-correction feature. Occasionally a truly poetic misspelling unintentionally occurs. I’ve seen Thursday appear as Turdsday, which seems to me to be a perfect descriptor for having to spend one more day at work so close to the thought of Friday.
I tried to explain to a ex-student’s mother why it’s important to be aware of grammar, but not to get past, present, or even future tense about it.
“My son has no idea what an adjective is.”
“That’s not unusual for a ninth grader.”
“But he doesn’t want to know.”
“That’s not so strange either. Most adults hate grammar.”
“How will he ever be able to describe what’s going on inside of him?”
“Adjectives aren’t the only parts of speech that describe.”
“I have a confession.”
“I know, you’re not sure what an adjective is either.”
“It’s a genetic flaw. Not even my parents had a clue.”
“Relax. Millions of people lead full and happy lives without knowing.”
“Do you think if I study up and start using them my son will get interested?”
“You’ve already been using them.”
“I’m sorry, I wasn’t paying attention.”
“No apology necessary.”
“Apology. That’s an adjective, isn’t it?”
“No, apology is a noun, but sorry is an adjective.”
“How can sorry be an adjective when it’s also an apology?”
“The labyrinths of grammar are complicated.”
“What’s a labyrinths?”
“Labyrinth is a noun, labyrinths is the plural form of the noun.”
“I feel so stupid.”
“Stupid is an adjective.”
“Oh, well then, I feel so adjective.”
“Actually, the word adjective is a noun.”
“Is there a pill I can take to help me?”
“Grammar itself is a pill.”
“I swear I took it, but I never passed it.”
“It takes a lifetime to digest.”
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