I didn’t get that joke when I was a kid. I pretended to, but my grasp of language was so shoddy that such subtle humour was lost on me. My grammar was, indeed, metaphorically speaking, in the front room watching telly*.
I am of that generation that didn’t get taught grammar properly, at least thats what I was told. When I were a lad, people seemed to think that teaching had gone to the dog’s and we should be focussing on the three Rs of reading, writing and mathematics.
I loved reading (I spent most of my childhood trying to avoid playing out so I could finish my book), so I guess I could of been good at English had someone actually taught me it†. I suppose their must of been a class where we had to label up a sentence, picking out verbs and adjectives, but I didn’t really know an adverb from a noun until I was well into my twenty’s.
Even then, I only learnt because I was an English teacher. I say English teacher, that makes it sound professional, and thats an insult to the teaching profession. I was one of those ex-student’s trying to avoid a proper job by standing in front of a class of foreigners and painfully realising that I didn’t actually know how to speak my own language, let alone explain it to someone else.
I even made error’s with the apostrophe! Now that I know better I can barely understand what I didn’t understand in the first place. It’s so simple! I guess the confusion is mainly around the possessive form of its, but their’s a solid no-exceptions rule: the apostrophe is only for the contraction of “it is” or “it has”, never for the possessive its. I wish I’d been told this before, I would of understood.
Then I learnt about auxiliary verbs‡.
How was I supposed to know that you didn’t stick the verb “to do” in the middle of sentences in other languages? I looked like a right banana trying to construct a Spanish sentence like “no hago saber” for “I don’t know”§, or not knowing about the verb “to have” and using the word “of” instead! What an idiot!
Then there’s there and their and they’re. Nowadays there’s little chance of me mucking this up, although there are times when there’s a rogue their when it should be there if I’m rushing and don’t proofread properly (which is often), but I get it now. I know the difference, errors are from haste, they’re carelessness not brainlessness, which is a step in the right direction.
I have now pretty much nailed the low-hanging grammar fruit.
I go to practice to practise, I know you buy envelopes in a stationery shop, although it’s probably stationary too, and I can write a whole blog post without needing a single correction from the spellcheck (I can even spell “definitely” now)… but I still don’t get effect and affect right. I have this stupid mental block about it that means I always have to check and sometimes I can’t choose and this æffects my confidence I my writing.
Why of why wasn’t I taught the good old three Rs of deciphering, calligraphy and arithmetic?
* The full joke is:
A little girl opened the door to her teacher.
‘Are your parents in?’ asked the teacher.
‘They was in’, said the little girl, ‘but they is out now.’
‘They WAS in! They IS out!’ exclaimed the teacher, ‘Where’s your grammar?’
‘Oh, she’s in the front room watching the telly.’
Thanks to New Day School for jogging my memory on the comedy details.
† I couldn’t bring myself to say “had somebody actually learned me it“, even for comic effect¶. Even as a barely literate child I knew the difference between borrow and lend, and teach and learn\\.
‡ The definition of an auxiliary verb I am using is:
A verb (such as have, do, or will) that determines the mood, tense, or aspect of another verb in a verb phrase.
Auxiliary verbs always precede main verbs within a verb phrase. Auxiliaries are also known as helping verbs.
§ It should be “(yo) no sé” which is literally “I no know” which sounds silly in English but is actually perfectly understandable and much more logical than unnecessarily adding a meaningless verb like we do with “do” – here’s a great explanation of the verb “to do” by Grammar Girl. She suggests that English’s bizarre use of “helpful” auxiliary verbs comes from Celtic languages, a fact that I do like.
¶ Or is it comic affect?
\\ I once lectured a work colleague on the correct grammatical use of the verb “to lend” when, during a summer job on a building site, he incorrectly asked to “borrow us yer ‘ammer“. I was never a popular member of the team.