Thursday, November 04, 2010

Lies our English teachers told us

We writers learned from an early age to revere our English teachers. After all, our English teacher was the one teacher we could count on to beam at approval when presented with our work.

I for one couldn’t count on that during, say, algebra, or ye gads, chemistry. My history teacher gave essay exams, so I could count on a beam on occasion from him, provided I didn’t confuse any dates. My high school Spanish class was the last class of the day, in a room with no air conditioning. That, combined with the sedative effect of conjugating irregular verbs, lulled me into a slumber so many times Senora sent a note home, so no smiles there.

But my English teacher … ah, I could count on her. When everyone else groaned about essays and themes, I hid a secret smile. When the rest of the class seemed completely flummoxed at the prospect of diagramming sentences, I could diagram a compound/complex sentence complete with gerund phrases and appositions.

So it is with a heavy heart that I tell you the truth. Many English teachers lie. Well, not lie, exactly, but certainly teach you habits that don’t translate into marketable fiction. And no, I’m not talking about how they crooned over THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE as a wonderful example of literature.

Thus follows a list – not a comprehensive one, but a good start – on the lies your English teacher (may) have told you.

Never write a fragment. This sounds like a wonderful command that should always be obeyed. However, try writing dialogue in complete sentences, and at once you’ll discover that your characters sound like stuffed shirts. Even in the narrative, a judicious use of a fragment is sometimes required.

Never end a sentence with a preposition. You remember the old grammarian’s favorite comeback after you ask, “Where’s something at?” She will (and I confess, I do this, too) invariably snap, “Behind the at!” and then cackle maniacally. But such a rule leads to some mighty convoluted wordsmithing. For instance, your character is asking, “Which bin should I put this in?” and suddenly, from the dusty recesses of your brain, you remember Mrs. English rapping her ruler at such a question and correcting with, “In which bin should I put this?” Like I said, you listen to Grammar Grouch and your characters will sound like stuffed shirts.

Adverbs are our friends. If there was one thing I wish my English teacher had told me, it was that the exact opposite is true. She had the right idea, of course: we need to use description and crisp imagery. But the beams that I got from Mrs. English came in response to essays and compositions larded with the hateful –ly family. I had no idea, when I first started writing toward publication, that adverbs were inferior crutches used to prop up lazy verbs.

So there you have it, just a few of the misguided notions that English teachers might possibly have let slip over the years. Yes, they were technically correct, but alas, when it comes to fiction writing, sometimes you have to bend the rules.


Al said...

A conspiracy to keep us from flourishing!

Matthew Rush said...

Such a great point Cynthia, thanks!

It's art anyway for god's sake. If painters had colored within the lines we would have never had impressionism.

Patty Blount said...

Interesting spin and so very true!

Every time I break a grammar rule, I grin.

But I think the important point here is you have to know the rules before you can break 'em!

Great post!

Linda G. said...

As an ex-teacher of English I should resent being called a liar, but I fear you're right about most of our breed.

I did tell my students they were free to break rules in their creative writing, provided they had adequately demonstrated they knew which rules they were breaking. ;)

Julie Musil said...

All so true! My kids are learning this stuff in school right now, so this is on our brains constantly (oops, an -ly word!)

Emy Shin said...

Most of these are really true! Academic writing of the high school English classroom varieties doesn't translate very well to creative writing, I've found.