Thursday, August 25, 2011
I am performing my yearly ritual as school starts: cleaning out my files. I happened upon a gem. The article was a Los Angeles Times obituary from February 18, 2005. Eleanor Gould Packard, grammarian for The New Yorker magazine for 54 years, was dead on that day at age 87.
In my life as a teacher, I have been deeply disturbed by my colleagues’ and students’ disrespect for grammar. Nouns, verbs, active voice, pronoun-antecedent agreement—these are the building blocks of our language. When grammatically correct, writing has a symmetry and beauty that supports meaning and nuance. Teachers disparage it—grammar is pointless when it’s taught in a vacuum, they say. Teaching whole writing is better. The bottom line is, they can’t teach it. It does not lend itself to touchy-feely writing assignments that stress putting down feelings, putting down anything, really, on paper. Corrections to grammar and spelling come later, they tell their students, if they come at all. Grades are awarded for writing something, not for a grammatically correct, logically sound argument of an idea.
Teaching grammar is hard work. There is a right and a wrong answer. The rules are concrete, and must be committed to memory or looked up when needed. And yes, the teaching of grammar must be connected to writing so students can learn the rules and then apply them as they revise their papers. Students must learn that when writing is grammatically correct, logically sound, coherently developed, the essay soars. It is a thing of beauty and a joy forever, to borrow from the poet John Keats.
As a writer, I strive for correctness with grammar. I actually become angry when I catch a mistake in my work. I consider it a ding to my credibility. How we speak and write indicates our level of education, as my teachers taught me.
But I wasn’t always a receptive student.
In high school, we had a separate class in grammar, and only grammar. We did no writing at all. Our assignments each day were to complete all the exercises in the Warriner’s Complete Course grammar text. I had yet to realize I was headed for a life of words and sentences. I slouched in the back of the room and either slept through class or lured flies to land on my open book so I could squash them between the pages. Later, when I made tentative forays into writing, I looked up how things were done in the books I was reading. I learned much grammar from those writers—Louis L’Amour, Mark Twain, and John Knowles, among others.
As a teacher preparing my first grammar-writing classes, I realized some of those lessons from the fly-filled, drowsy days had actually seeped into my brain. Teaching made me a student of grammar, finally.
All of these memories came flooding back due to a newspaper clipping in a file. Eleanor Gould Packer “read every nonfiction article scheduled for publication. She saw the galley proof after the assigning editor, fact checker, copy editor, and lawyer went through it. She still found reasons to fill margins with questions and comments.”
The obit goes on to quote Packard: “I do grammar, I go for sensible sentences, I avoid awkwardness, avoid ambiguity, try to make a thing hang together.”
In her margin notes to writers, she was all vinegar and spice: “This clear? (not to me).” Or, in challenging an assertion: “How so?” And when catching an error, she wrote the unequivocal “NOT grammar.” She even had a sense of humor: “Have we completely lost our mind?” she wrote in response to an error in logic.
In her 54 years at the magazine, she rarely took a day off, inexplicably woke up deaf one morning, and retired in 1999 after a stroke. She was one tough contrarian grammarian. We should all be so diligent and meticulous as writers, and especially, as teachers.
Photo: Eleanor Gould Packard as photographed by Sara Krulwich for The New York Times.