Monday, April 4, 2011

What the Hell is a Gerund?

I recently started teaching a 3-day letter writing class for employees of my old company. These folks are senior customer service reps who must compose written replies to the more complicated inquiries and complaints the company receives, and also to letters written to the Public Service Commission or top executives. I knew going in that it would not be an easy class; if you haven't mastered the basics of grammar, punctuation, capitalization, sentence structure, etc. by the eighth grade, then that ship has sailed. My experience bore out my fears...luckily the company has hundreds of "canned" letters written for almost every imaginable occasion that its employees can use as is or modify slightly as necessary. This limits the amount of original writing they must do.

Going over the rules of grammar took me back to my school days at Our Lady of Lourdes in Brooklyn. Those teachers and Franciscan Brothers drilled us relentlessly from the first grade, and created a solid foundation in the English language that they continued to build on right on up through eighth grade. Starting at ground zero with the alphabet, there were printed white-on-green signs mounted above the blackboard that ran around the perimeter of the room. They contained examples of how to write every letter in upper and lower case script.

We learned the Palmer Method of script writing by doing exercises in making loops and whorls with our scratchy fountain pens, while the teachers stood over our shoulders. By pure, boring repetition we learned how to write out letters in a legible hand by the end of first grade. Today, teaching script writing to kids has become a major issue in grammar schools. "Helicopter Parents", so called because they hover over their children every moment of every day, are up in arms because little Ashley made a scowly face when she tried to write in script. Call out the guard, change the curriculum, my child is struggling and I can't bear to watch! Some pinhead actually wrote a book called: "Handwriting Without Tears". Puh-leeeeze.

By second grade we learned about capitalization, punctuation, and spelling. In third grade we hit the basic parts of speech: nouns, verbs, adjectives. Then we moved on to prepositions, conjunctions, adverbs, infinitives, and gerunds... gerunds, for God's sake. If you asked the average high school graduate what a gerund was, they would probably answer: a small, furry animal that lives in a cage and exercises on a wheel. We not only learned the parts of speech, but how to correctly use them in sentences. By third grade we were diagramming sentences showing their proper construction, the subject, verb, object and all modifiers. This was a foolproof way to learn grammar, but they don't teach it any more because it causes the kiddies to frown.

We took all the English we learned and we wrote. Essays, book reports, friendly letters, business letters...we had homework every night that involved writing out the answers to questions. Our answers had to be not only factually correct, but written logically, using correct spelling, grammar, and sentence structure. I'd bet money that in 1956, the English and writing skills we had after graduating eighth grade in a Catholic grammar school would surpass those of college grads today. Don't take that bet because you'd lose. One of the greatest deficiencies exhibited by modern day job seekers is the inability to write. It's a very sad legacy for young American adults that they can't write nearly as well as mid-Nineteenth Century kids with a fourth grade education.

So thank you Misses Langin, Ruffalo, Wall and Baumann; thank you Brothers Conrad, Francis, and Jude for beating that stuff into our young skulls. We didn't appreciate it then, but you were bestowing on us the priceless gift of literacy. Today we worry more about our kids being happy and having high self-esteem...those things are good up to a point, but can't help them find work if they are illiterate morons.


LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS: Children's Craniofacial Association

1 comment:

Joseph Del Broccolo said...

I wish I had said that! That was said: swimmingly!