Freedom in Structure and Other Thoughts About Words

This Thursday will be National Grammar Day in the United States, designated by none other than my colleague Martha Brockenbrough. I almost said “founded” but you can’t found a day, or find it, for that matter, can you?

Martha also wrote a book on the subject of good grammar and its place in the world order: Things That Make Us (Sic): The Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar Takes on Madison Avenue, Hollywood, the White House, and the World. It’s the American answer to Lynne Truss’s well-known meditation on hungry (or murderous) pandas.

Seriously, who but writers finds grammar so compelling? Consider these principles from syndicated columnist Catherine Rampell’s English teacher. Here’s the first:

Learn all the rules of language, even the stodgy-seeming ones. You will find freedom in structure.

To which Rampell writes:

Initially, this exactitude felt constricting. But once we mastered Mr. Greco’s rules — learned who from whom, and whatnot — they were liberating. He taught us the masonry of language. Now we could build whatever we liked. I remember realizing, at age 12, how awesome it was that words and sentences could do my bidding.

I get that! I do. My 12-year-old self was thrilled to pieces when she understood the distinction between “who” and “whom.” Mind you, “whom” will probably fall off the language map in my lifetime–I found myself striking it out of a draft recently for sounding, well, stodgy. But the neural pathway the distinction wired for me–that’s the point of finding joy in the company of words.

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