here are few things that the world agrees on, but I think that a fairly universal opinion held by all genders, young and old, rich or poor, is that grammar is such a frustrating subject. Everyone’s been tripped up by it at some point, not understood some archaic rule, or been embarrassed when they’ve used a term improperly in an email that really should have been perfect.
But for all the torment that grammar has wrought on generations of people, there must be some good or it would have gone the way of the 1950s Jell-O mold entrees. So, here are three valuable life lessons grammar has taught me.
1. Color vs. Colour
I attended a British school in Milan for one year, and my American accent stood out amongst the British-accented Italian kids and the British teacher. When the teacher asked me to spell “color” to the class, she used me as an example and asked why I spelled it without a “u.” I assumed I’d just gotten it wrong — which I had, she reminded me later, since this was a British school — but in the moment she said it was because I’m American. The difference in spelling distinguished the two cultures. As a sixth grader I was mortified to be singled out, but now I understand that being different is, of course, not a bad thing. Doing things unlike others doesn’t mean their way is superior, it simply means that our inner workings and life experiences have led us to do things a certain way. And when you meet someone who does things similarly, there is often some link in your path — like when I meet someone who also likes mayonnaise with French fries, I can usually pin them as either European or midwestern, like me. Different, then, is not bad, but a very condensed summary of someone.
2. The Passive Voice
The college application years are not so far behind me that I no longer remember writing pages and pages of silly little essays. But more than that, what I remember is my mother underlining (if not in person) or vociferously condemning (if in person) every use of the passive voice in my essays. She explained, quite rationally, that the passive voice makes it sound like things happened to you as opposed to you doing them. This is a key detail in college essays, when you are trying to prove you’ve already done so much you should really be applying for the MacArthur Genius Grant instead of a top 50 liberal arts college. Now, whenever I write, I still hear my mother’s voice and am far more selective in how I use the passive voice. But as a life lesson, it’s been very good. Acting is a career that largely depends on others saying, “Yes, you can do this job.” Or, “I was cast.” Passive. Something done to me. And the more I realized how much of my career amounted to passive voice sentences, the more I hated it. This dislike has pushed me to do what I can to flip this dynamic and turn my career bio into almost exclusively active sentences. It’s a work in process, but I am hopeful that I’ll successfully banish the passive voice in my life, if not in my writing.
3. Run on sentences
I’ve often heard that you can tell Dickens was paid by the word for “A Tale of Two Cities” because that famous opening drags on forever. Well, I say, if you’ve ever read anything in Italian, you know Dickens has nothing on Italian writers. The sentences are so long and winding in Italian literature that you’d think their editors told them that for every-period they lost money. So, when I came to America and learned that run-on-sentences are an evil to be avoided, I was relieved if not a bit whip-lashed. In English, convoluted sentences aren’t good. I doubt this is the reason, but I like to imagine that the Anglo-Saxon culture of England and America prizes politeness, and what are run-on-sentences but sentences that have over-stayed their welcome? And that’s what they’ve taught me about life. Know when it’s time to leave. Not just gatherings for the sake of politeness, but anything. At some point, continuing on benefits no one and a fresh new start would be better. I’m not suggesting quitting or cutting bail — rather, learning to recognize when it’s better to put a period and begin a new thought or phase. For as much as we appreciate Dickens, we adore Hemingway.
And yes, I’m sure I spelled things differently, used a passive voice, and had a run-on-sentence somewhere in this article. But that’s another thing grammar has taught me — you might know all the rules, but you will still make a mistake sometimes, and that’s ok.