Let’s play two truths and a lie:
- I’m an English major.
- I don’t consciously, completely know – and consequently, occasionally don’t follow – the rules of English grammar.
- I have a rare blue-eyed cockatoo named Marie that I keep at the place of a friend of an aunt of a friend in Omaha.
In case you couldn’t tell by the weirdly specific nature of number three, that’s the lie. This means that the first and second ones are truths, and yes, I admit that the juxtaposition between these two facts is jarring.
Now, to be fair, I have learned the rules of grammar at some point in my life. I was taught how to identify the subject of a sentence and differentiate between an adjective and adverb, thanks to the efforts of my patient elementary, middle and high school English teachers. I went to SAT prep classes and learned when to use the simple past versus the past perfect tenses.
But did everything stick around in my brain? Not really. Actually, most of that stuff’s gone. (To all my teachers: I’m sorry).
Of course, I can do some of the simpler grammatical tasks, like picking out all the nouns in a sentence. But if you ask me whether a verb is in the subjunctive mood, it’ll take me a while at best, require that I look up “subjunctive” before I can do the this hypothetical test set before me at worst.
But who really remembers these grammatical terms anyways, right? It’s just a matter of putting the ideas that each term encapsulates into practice.
Well, I sometimes can’t do that, either.
Punctuation placement is the bane of my existence. According to the Purdue OWL, I’m not supposed to “put a comma between the two verbs or verb phrases in a compound predicate.” The Purdue OWL presumes that I know what a compound predicate is off the top of my head, which I don’t. And I’ve seen people from credible organizations do the thing it says not to do. And you can tell just how confused I am by all this because the previous sentence was full of pronouns without clear antecedents. But, hey, at least I know what pronouns and antecedents are.
Instead of relying on style guides and grammatical words, I tend to rely on my instincts – a tendency I noticed when my mom, for whom English is a secondary language, asked me how I know which preposition to use in which case. I distinctly remember shrugging and replying, “It’s just a feeling.”
Of course, my hunches have been wrong before, which is why things like punctuation placement – too specific in its rules, too vague to accurately put into practice – are nightmares for me. But it’s worked relatively well for the last 20 years, so it’s not the kind of nightmare that keeps me up at night.
At the heart of the arguments about what is “correct” grammar, there is the idea that people should communicate in a standardized way. Of course, the irony is that there is no one way. For instance, consider the Oxford comma. The AP Stylebook opposes it, while the Chicago style guide is a proponent of it.
So many things slip through the cracks opened up when people argue over whether it should be a comma or an em dash, when in reality, grammar is just a way of structuring language, which has the primary purpose of allowing humans to convey their thoughts and feelings to one another. With this in mind, I’d say that my proclivity for trusting my feelings when it comes to grammar is wholly appropriate. What’s more fitting than trusting my feelings in order to convey my feelings?
Oh, and while I might be more forgiving about other grammatical discrepancies, I strongly believe the Oxford comma is critical, non-negotiable, and mandated by natural law.
Ericka Shin is the Weekender editor. Contact her at [email protected]