A Word, Please

Don’t fear grammar

“Teachers are often scared of grammar.”

That’s the unhappy verdict of an article posted on the UK-based teacher support website Tes.com. “The fear of being wrong with grammar is huge — the fear of being exposed,” University of Exeter professor Debra Myhill told the site. “You don’t get that as a literature teacher, because everything is about opinion — there’s no right or wrong. You can’t wing it as a grammar teacher.”

I stay out of education debates. I don’t have kids in school. I’m not a teacher. And I’ve heard enough uninformed criticisms of hardworking teachers to know that I don’t want to add another uninformed voice to the discussion.

But there’s one thing I can offer: hope. I dropped out of school in the ninth grade. Yet by 19 I was enrolled in a real university where four years later I would earn a real degree before eventually going on to write five grammar books for real money from real publishers. If I can overcome the fear of having my ignorance exposed, anyone can.

Here’s my advice for everyone who fears being wrong about this intimidating subject.

1. Don’t start any grammar-related sentence with the words “It’s wrong to.” There’s a lot of bad information floating around about grammar, and most of it takes the form of bogus prohibitions. If you heard somewhere it’s wrong to end a sentence with a preposition, split an infinitive or begin a sentence with “and,” don’t assume you heard right. You didn’t.

2. Check your dictionary before you tell someone how to use a word. For example, if you read the whole entry for the verb “can,” you see it can be a synonym of “may.” If you read the whole entry for “done,” you see it’s fine to say, “I’m done,” at the end of a meal.

3. Read the “How to Use This Dictionary” section of your dictionary. This will teach you how to confirm whether it’s “I have swam” or “I have swum” (spoiler: the second one is better) and whether you can use a verb like “graduate” as a transitive, as in “he graduated school,” or only as an intransitive, as in “he graduated from school.” (Spoiler: it’s both.)

4. Know the three types of verbs: intransitive, which don’t take direct objects, transitive, which do, and linking verbs, which take things called complements. That last one is especially important. The reason “I feel bad” is grammatical and “I feel badly” is not rests on the fact that “feel” is a linking verb that, like “be,” “seem” and “appear,” is followed by an adjective instead of an adverb because it describes the noun in the subject.

5. If you’re going to use “whom” and “whomever,” make sure you thoroughly understand how. Quiz: Why are “Give the job to whomever you want” and “Give the job to whoever wants it” both correct? Because in the second one, the object of the preposition “to” is the whole clause, “whoever wants it.” The verb “wants” needs a subject. And because “whoever” is a subject, it’s the choice here over the object form “whomever.” If my explanation leaves you scratching your head, avoid “whomever” altogether until you can Google a better one.

6. Understand phrases and clauses. A clause contains a subject and a verb. It can be a whole sentence, “Barney ate.” Or a clause can be the foundation of a more complicated sentence: “Barney ate two greasy grilled cheese sandwiches in front of the TV on Tuesday night.” The grammar lessons at Khan Academy include a good free video lecture on phrases and clauses.

7. Know what an adverb is. Young kids are taught that adverbs end in “ly” and modify actions. But adults should understand that the word class we call “adverb” is far broader than that. It includes sentence adverbs, like “hopefully,” plus words no one expects, like “tomorrow” and “however.”

8. Remember: It’s never too late to learn.

June Casagrande is the author of “The Best Punctuation Book, Period.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.