by Erik Deckers
American Reporter Humor Writer
May 14, 2007
HOW TO DO GOODER WRITING
INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. -- There's an old saying that goes "Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach." (To which I would add, "Those who can't teach, consult.")
I was reminded of this while preparing to teach a writing class. It was my first time, so I wanted to make sure I did it well. I wanted to be a writer who could do as well as teach. (Although to be fair, consultants make a heck of a lot more money that either doers or teachers.)
As I began reviewing the dos and don'ts of writing, I realized I had some fundamental gaps in my own knowledge of simple grammar. There were some rather important grammar rules that I had never bothered to learn in all my years of school.
Funny, huh? A writer for 20 years who doesn't know everything about grammar? Don't worry, it gets worse.
People who know me know that I can be a real stickler about grammar and punctuation. They usually find this out when they make the mistake of asking, "Could you give this a quick read through for me?"
In fact, most of these people have a special name for me. I think it's "rotten mustard" or something like that, but I don't know what they mean. At least, I think it sounds like "mustard." I can't be sure.
I'm the kind of guy who grinds his teeth when people say "less" when they should say "fewer." I cringe whenever someone writes "your" as a contraction of "you are." And I throw a hissy whenever someone on tv says "I" instead of "me," as in "she gave some cookies to John and I." For the record, it should be "John and me." (I'm talking to you, Katie Couric!)
"How do you know which one to use?" my oldest daughter asked me one day.
"Well, you just take out 'John and,'" I said. "Then you're left with 'me' or 'I.' Just use whichever sounds right."
"You could also say it has to do with whether you're the subject or object," my wife said.
"Subject or what-now?"
"Subject or object." she said. "Of the sentence?"
I stared blankly at her. "You mean you don't know what the subject and object of a sentence are?" she shrieked.
As I shook my head and waited for my wife to explain, I realized she was laughing too hard to actually tell me what they were. That's when I also realized I was I was missing out on one of the most basic grammar rules anyone should ever know. Sort of like an accountant who doesn't know the number seven.
I figured this might be important, especially since I was teaching a writing class and would need to sound smarter than the "just take out 'John and'" explanation.
A little basic research, and I finally had my answer. I also discovered what all the fuss was about. It turns out "subject versus object" is one of the simplest rules of English grammar there is.
In short, the subject acts, the object is acted upon.
In other words, in the sentence, "My wife laughed in my face," my wife is the subject because she laughed cruelly at my predicament; my face is the object, because it was laughed at and had its feelings hurt. Badly.
So I did a little more studying and learned what I needed to know. I learned about active and passive verbs, gerunds, and why dangling one's participle is not only bad grammar, but can be rather painful.
But even though I felt like I had missed out on an important part of my writing education, I reminded myself that I've never been too concerned about silly things like knowing the names of grammar and punctuation rules. ("Unencumbered by the thought process," is how one high school English teacher put it.) I've always known what's correct without knowing the reason why it was.
"I don't need to know about the internal combustion engine to drive a car," my dad said to me once. "So it shouldn't matter if you know the names of grammar rules as long as you can still write well."
My friend and fellow humor columnist Dick Wolfsie says that's not a good analogy, but my dad gets me birthday presents, so I'm siding with him on this one.
After I taught my class, I realized I had broken the "those who can't, teach" curse. I found that with a little hard work, I could finally become the kind of writer I wanted to be.
And I learned myself to be a gooder teaching guy, too.