Monday, October 22, 2007

Dispelling the Grammar Goblin

I keeping saying that I’m a copywriter, noting my past writing assignments from Web site designers, corporations, ad agencies, and universities – but occasionally, when passing a mirror, I squint at my reflection and wonder: how could anyone with a serious lacking like mine make it as a successful copywriter? We need to return to the rambunctious days of high school, where the first sign of my haunting began.

Her name was Mrs. Mayer, and she taught English composition. Her favorite comment to me was, “Get out!” You see, I was ejected from her class – several times – for indiscriminate belching followed by muffled giggling. Somehow, I just couldn’t sit mute while she rambled on about what I considered to be the ghostly world of grammar – including that frightening exercise, sentence diagramming.

Classroom Deja Vu

Eventually I graduated, then joined the Navy. While watching the waves go by, I discovered a way to make some extra cash. I found that I could help shipmates write the Dear John letters they were getting from (former) girlfriends back home. I charged $5 a letter, and suddenly I was a professional writer. Still, there was that haunting, that mystifying world of grammar. Surely, I reasoned, after writing letters with tender openings like, “Dearest Donna, you can go to hell,” the rank of copywriter first class would soon be mine.

After the Navy, I enrolled at the University of Miami school of journalism, not because I had an enviable GPA, but because I was exceptionally tall and could shoot a basketball. My high school grades were, in fact, so bad the university had to admit me on probation. I felt better as time went by, though, because I got past the probation while some of my teammates goofed off so often they didn’t graduate. Proud of myself, I was sure there would be no Mrs. Mayer in my future – and certainly no belching at the college level.

Then, one day, in yet another English class, my professor threw an eraser at me. It went like this: the professor stood at the backboard and wrote: “Chesterfield tastes good like a cigarette should.” He then turned and asked, “What’s wrong with that sentence?” I piped up from the back row:

“It should be Winston tastes good like a cigarette should.”

That’s when the eraser came flying – along with the professor’s cry, “You
idiot!” – and bopped me right between the eyes. Nice control. He should have tried out with the Yankees. Well, it should have been Winston, right? Little did I know back then the subtle difference between “like” and “as.”

Don’t Go West Young Man

So, the question remains. With such forgettable beginnings, and the goblin still hovering, how did I end up a copywriter, especially now that I am ready to confess that I could not pass a high school grammar test. You start talking about participles and appositives and I am totally lost. My mind slams its door and refuses to cooperate. I wish I could pass that test; in fact, I wish I were a grammar expert. Without the boundaries imposed by grammar, our written language would be unintelligible, a mess. Even with a certain F in grammar, I kept going. And I remember why: My uncle.

He owned two newspapers in Newburg, Oregon, and I thought that if I majored in journalism he would give me a job. My thinking was sound, if not my timing. By the time I graduated, he had sold both newspapers, retired, and moved to Ft. Lauderdale. So much for my planning skills.

So there I was…a degree in journalism and no job. But all was not lost. I recalled one of my professors telling me that my studies in journalism would also prepare me to be a copywriter. They had coaxed me away from the lofty world of literature (Shakespeare, Mark Twain, Homer, etc.), and toward the discipline of writing functional sentences, the kind that would help me get by in the world of business and other such serious matters.

Again and again, the professors kept declaring: “Think about what you’re saying!” and “Write to your reader!” and those now-famous words of Yale professor William Strunk and author E.B. White: ”Be clear” and “Omit needless words.” It was a good beginning; the goblin was beginning to fade in the rearview mirror.

With no offers from Wall Street or the Yankees, I began to ponder my professional fate. Was the role of reporter for me? On my first assignment for a weekly newspaper, I knocked on a door in search of a story about somebody’s domestic violence. Well, the scowling somebody before me slammed the door in my face. Maybe someday I might learn to write, but I doubted that I would ever learn to report. After searching other avenues, I finally decided to become a copywriter, a writer of corporate propaganda.

As I pursued the goal, I still found myself confronted by the same annoying specter…grammar. I just didn’t understand it. Today, if you want to send me into total catatonic shock, just look me in the eye and whisper: “Let’s diagram your sentences…Let’s diagram your sentences.”

Monkey See…

Then one day I discovered a book, The Art of Styling Sentences, and it gave me new hope. The authors, English professors at the University of Texas, were telling me I could construct sentences by imitating established sentence patterns. Their book contained 20 patterns – with little or no mention of diagramming or the puzzling dictates of Mrs. Mayer. As a child I had learned to speak the language by imitating what I heard. If I could do that, why couldn’t I shoo the goblin by imitating patterns?

It made sense, and I decided to give it a try. The authors gave me another hint, one echoed by E.B. White. They said, “Listen to the language and develop your own voice.” He said, “Cock your ear.” With sentence patterns in hand, and my ear cocked, I could see the goblin fading rapidly.

The patterns turned out to be my solution, my amulet. And, surprise of all surprises, the authors managed to slip a few elementary rules of grammar past me without my knowing – not enough to pass that high school test, mind you, but enough to help me write sentences that weren’t totally unintelligible.

Finally, I think my uncle did me a favor. Had he stayed in Oregon, had he given me a job, I would not have become a copywriter. That’s what I am today – and if it were possible, I would travel back in time, drop in on Mrs. Mayer and belch one last time. And if I were still thinking about payback, I would head south to my alma mater and hide in the bushes outside my English professor’s class, eraser in hand.



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