Thanks to Sister Mary Clarentia (who we adoringly called Sister Tarantula or The Tranch for short) in seventh grade, I fell in love with the usage rules of the English language. When I went on to high school, Sister Ursula, (Sister Rubber Lips, sorry. † self) my Latin teacher, showed how language had even stricter rules. In my senior year, Ms. M-P (the first person I knew who had a hyphenated last name.. she still scolds me that she doesn’t want me to use her real name in my blog) showed me that these rules can be manipulated to create all ranges of emotion and bend people to your will based on your words alone.
Wow, that was real power, I thought, I wanted more of this seductive drug.
I also wanted to rule the world, so when I got to college, I thought I wanted to study linguistics. I was wrong, but that is a story for another day. I ended up studying English, dragging a linguistics minor along a tow rope behind me like one of those bouncy spring dogs. The important take-away was linguistics saved me from being a badge-wielding, zero-tolerance, know-it-all English major grammar cop your mother warned you to stay away from.
Yeah, I’m aware I ended that sentence with a preposition. You don’t think I did it on purpose just to rankle the grammar police? Or is you calling me stupid? Which is it, punk? Go ahead, make my day!
In linguistics class that first day, I quickly learned that grammar is the set of structural rules that govern the composition of clauses, phrases, and words in any given natural language. Grammars are descriptive, not prescriptive. Grammar rules depend on where the language is spoken and can change dramatically within a social group.
Ah-ha! This was incredibly cool and opened up a whole new level of creativity with language. It made the writer an artist. It also explains why politicians feel they need to speak with a Southern drawl when they visit the Deep South* but that is also another story for another day, y’all.
M’grits is gettin’ cold. Hang fer a minute…
My second linguistics class — after surviving Introduction to Linguistics where they teach you phonetic transcription trumps orthography every time — was taught by a particularly arrogant French professor.
We American students made the mistake of pronouncing the word sauté as sɐté.** She immediately flew into a rage, saying the correct pronunciation was sóte. She was right, of course, we had been pronouncing the word incorrectly for years. But it was our Upper Midwest grammar and she was wrong to correct our transcription.
I’m not even going to get into the argument of whether or not the /t/ was a dental or alveolar consonant. We couldn’t even agree on the vowel and the stress.
Thing is we were both right grammatically and since we were in Minnesota, she should have been pronouncing it sɐté if she had any hopes of fitting in. She did not care about fitting in. She was French. When in Rome, it is always best to adopt the grammar that the Latins use and quit Gaulling people by being haughty.
I think that was the lesson.
I still went and got me the English degree, but always kept my left-brained linguistics minor in tow. It is firmly bolted to my jaw and activates itself whenever my right-brained English degree feels like it should pop off and correct someone’s “grammar.”
What does a sauté pan and correcting someone’s grammar have in common? If you do one, you’re likely to get hit with the other. Or a skillet. Or frying pan. Or spider.
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*For all you Southerners who think all Northerners talk alike, read this. Linguistic Atlas of the Upper Midwest by Harold B. Allen.
**My IPA transcription is really rusty. Feel free to call me out on this by sending the correct notation if I got this wrong.