My fourth grade teacher, Miss Lack, is Forever in the Building

I had a fourth grade teacher called Miss Lack. Imagine a young Mother Superior with a beehive instead of a wimple and habit. She had to be in her twenties, but that never occurred to us. She was scary.

She was also a good teacher. I first remember thinking about writing in her classroom, the elements that went into it, how a comma made a difference. Of course she was a product of her time, and she was a strict grammarian. One way and one way only to speak and write the language. We diagrammed sentences and labored over quotation marks.

Still today I think about Miss Lack when I hesitate over where a period goes. Even though her rules are now way out of date and new punctuation fashions are in place, I remember her rules. And when I see somebody using them, I’m torn between admiration and irritation.

Here’s the rule I still see used a lot and it drives me nuts because it’s so stilted:

Mary took her best friend, Louise Harrigan, out to lunch.

The old fashioned rule is: got two semantically equal noun phrases (friend=Louise), set the second one off with commas. Now I ask you, is this not awkward? Doesn’t it make you pause and think about, say, beehive hairdos intead of what Mary and Louise are talking about at lunch? It’s like a footnote stuck right up into the face of the story. But I see this a lot. I never, ever do it myself. I try to find a way to achieve the information without evoking Punctuation Parameters.

Mary took her best friend out to lunch. Louise was always in the mood for sushi, and she had no compunctions about gossip.

You can get the Harrigan part in there someplace in the scene, it doesn’t need to be right up front. At least not for fiction. I would make this same argument with a slightly different approach for creative non-fiction. It’s just awkward and silly and fourth-grade to stick to this better-introduce-the-character-to-the-reader approach.

Miss Lack taught me some very useful things, as well. For example, I credit her with the beginnings of my extreme dislike of excessive exclamation marks.

11 Replies to “My fourth grade teacher, Miss Lack, is Forever in the Building”

  1. Assuming the premise, that punctuation within a sentence is used to reduce the ambiguity, I agree with Miss Lack. However, I also agree with you, that instead of using Miss Lack’s rule, one should redo the paragraph so that the stilted language is removed. I cannot stand split infinitives; quotations on signs; and lack of using the reflexive pronoun form. “Eat Here” The quotes on the sign are inappropriate. I can accept “Best Barbecue in Hootin’ Holler” since that implies someone decided Hootin’ Holler’s barbecue was better than anywhere else in the world and now is being quoted on the sign. The mother clasped the baby to her and ran through the fire. To her what? She clasped the baby to herself. Don’t these examples demonstrate using punctuation and grammar to reduce ambiguity? This all sounds like I’m a stuffy prig. Really, I’m not! I’ve been on a tear for a decade or so on the difficulty of communicating with one another or even oneself. Written language is more difficult than spoken. I can see you as I speak and use more words to communicate better if I see that you don’t understand me. I can’t see you read my letter; so it had better be correct.

  2. Think of me tonight while I am proofreading my 7th grader’s essay on “Elizabethan Weapons”….
    Cynthia

  3. Best things I learned from an English teacher – I think it was in Jr. high – were a handful of phrases to help me with correct spacing and spelling of commonly misspelled words. Like, “There is a lot of space in a parking lot” and “Since we rely on her, we thank her sincerely.”

    As for punctuation, I’m forever fighting what I was taught with what makes sense to me when I speak. My most common mistake is the missing comma I always forget when writing parenthetical phrases – “He bought some flowers, and when he got home, he apologized to his wife.” – see how I forgot the comma that should come after the ‘and’ – “He bought some flowers, and, when he got home, he apologized to his wife.” I know that the comma is supposed to go there, but when I play the sentence in my head, the comma isn’t necessary. So I always wonder why I can’t just leave it out.

    Which makes me want to twist comma rules to my own better end. Except I absolutely hate it when people misuse commas, so who am I to say what is right or wrong?

  4. I’m fascinated by the difference between people who have learned language through reading versus people who have learned it through speech. Spelling and grammar come much easier to those who learned it by reading, pronunciation can be problematic though. Quite the opposite is true for those who learned by listening.

  5. Soup — you’ve got me a little confused with your comment. Every human being acquires spoken language first. The acquisiton process is wired into the brain. Written languages are very different. They have to be explicitely taught. Reading and writing can be self-taught, but that’s a difficult process.

  6. Sorry- let me clarify… I was reading books by age 3; Pokey Little Puppy’s First Christmas was the first book I read without ever hearing it first. From then on I read more complicated books, relatively age appropriate of course, but I’ve read many more words before I’ve heard them. So, I tend to mispronounce things, but usually use and spell words correctly.
    I’ve noticed this in many people who read at an early age. The idea and learning of basic language is hardwired and usually predictable, but the variance of words one sees in print and the use of correct grammar isn’t usually found in early childhood auditory language sources. So, when the primary source of new words and their usage is written, then one usually uses and spells the words correctly, when more of language is learned by speech and listening, then words are pronounced correctly but may be misspelled and/or not grammatically correct.

  7. Thing is, I’m with Miss Lack. And you know I’m no grammarian. Hell, I can barely spell it.

    So take your example sentence:

    Mary took her best friend, Louise Harrigan, out to lunch.

    Now, above and beyond any question about whether the sentence is nicely phrased or not, if I were reading that out loud I’d actually drop the volume and pitch of my voice for the name of the friend. It’s a subordinate clause, right?

    Mary took her best friend, (the best friend’s name is) Louise Harrigan, out to lunch.

    Another way to punctuate it that would convey what I would do with my voice would be something like:

    Mary took her best friend–Louise Harrigan–out to lunch.

    I do this a lot in my vernacular writing because I use “like” a lot. But “like” can be used in different ways; you can use it for flavor or you can use it for pacing.

    So this fucker just shoves his way past me, right? And I’m like, Dude, what the fuck?

    versus

    So this fucker just shoves his way past me, right? And I’m, like, Dude, what the fuck?

    The first one uses “I’m like” as a substitute for “I said,” and doesn’t require a pause before the “like.” The second one is much more literal and implies affect rather than an actual quote. It means I made some noise or used my body language to indicate indignation rather than actually saying, in as many words, “Dude, what the fuck?” In that context, “like” means, “I presented myself as if to say.” The pause actually changes the meaning of the word, and I’d use a comma to indicate the presence of the pause.

    But, you know, nobody buys my stuff.

    My god… is it– do you suppose it’s the subordinate clauses that’ve been messing me up all this time?

  8. Absolutely, it’s the subordinate clauses. And also maybe the fact that you’re goofing around on the internets instead of writing. Of course, so am I.

    Beyond that, I’m not sure what you’re saying here when you claim you’re with Miss Lack (and by the way, that is a way May-December thing you’ve got going on). You like setting off names that are dropped like a ton of hot bricks into the middle of an innocent sentence just trying to make its way through the story?

    She introduced her husband, Dr. Perry Wilson, to the new neighbor.

    Regardless of whether you’re reading this out loud (which is kinda beside the point, no?) this geekily formal, in my opinion, and should be avoided. Tha’s all I meant.

  9. Okay, but I’m just standing up for the comma usage. I looooovre commas. I love punctuation. If there was a way to write a whole story in punctuation, I’d be there.

    And 43,000 words into my (fiction) novel, thank you very much. Two thousand of which were written on the very yesterday that I posted my long-ass comment here.

    …of course, I’ve been stalled out since yesterday morning. But I’m not procastinating.

  10. You could do a mixed media thing with punctuation, you know. But better you should be working on this novel. Which is????

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