Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Dispatches from the grammar front

So this blonde dame swings into my office, bracelets jingling, high heels clicking like a precision drum line in tight formation, and says she's got a problem--a grammar problem.

Well you've come to the right place, sweetheart, says I. There's no syntax too taxing for Dashiell Hyphen, Private Grammarian. So spit it out--what's your trouble?

She looks down at her hands, blushes like the nun that stumbled into the brothel, and says, My problem is like.

Like what? says I.

It's just--like, she says. Or I guess it's like and as. My boyfriend keeps telling me I ought to use as instead of like, and I don't mind so much when it's just us two but last night at a dinner party he and his mother--she's an English teacher, his mother, the old-fashioned kind with a hankie stuffed up her sleeve and cat-eye glasses with little jewels on them--anyway, he and his mother ganged up on me in front of everyone and wouldn't stop yammering about conjectures and a prostrations or whatever they're called.

Conjunctions and prepositions, says I, but I'm afraid you've got a bigger problem than grammar. Sounds like you need to ditch the boyfriend. You can bet his mama's got him wrapped around her apron strings, and besides, why would you want to hang around with a jerk who corrects your grammar at a dinner party?

Because he's loaded, she says.

Loaded with grammar peeves or with something more marketable?

She gives me this sad-puppy look and says, we met at a Chipotle where I was rolling his burrito and he promised to buy me my own franchise as a wedding gift but now he won't marry me unless I learn the difference between like and as!

I hand her a tissue. It's a tough case, all right. I could take a lot of time to explain that like is a preposition that takes an object while as is a conjunction that can link two clauses, but I don't want to drive this crying dame to prostration over such distinctions, especially when it's a well-kept secret amongst grammarians that the distinction is often overlooked in casual contexts. Give him the burrito like he ordered it is probably okay in the Chipotle context, but she'll never get a chance to step back into the Chipotle context unless I can explain like and as in a way that doesn't involve words of more than two syllables.

And then it hits me: verbs. Even a loved-crazed burrito-roller has to know what a verb is, right? And so I lean forward, hand her another tissue, and ask, What's your position on verbs?

Verbs? she sniffles. What's verbs got to do with it?

You know what a verb is, right? says I. 

An action word, she says. Everyone knows that.

Not everyone, says I, but don't get me started. You don't have to know about conjunctions and prepositions if you just remember this simple little trick: don't put like before a clause containing a subject and verb.

She looks puzzled.

So I get up to the blackboard and write out some sentences:

A burrito is shaped like a meaty torpedo.  
A smashed burrito looks like a mess.  

See? says I. The preposition--like--is followed by an object--torpedo or mess. Not a verb in sight.

Okay, says she, but what about Rolling a burrito is like massaging a torpedo? There's a verb after like!

But look at that verb, says I: massaging names an action and fills a noun's role in the prepositional phrase. We call that a verbal, and you'll notice that there's no subject in front of it, nobody actually doing the massaging. You can put like in front of verbs acting like nouns, but not verbs acting like verbs.

She clicks and jingles over to the blackboard, so close I can smell her cologne: eau de pico de gallo. Show me, she says in a husky voice.

So I show her:

When that jerk corrects my grammar, it feels like a slap in the face.
Why does he keep belittling me as if I meant nothing to him?
I feel as though I could smash a burrito right in his face--and his mother's, too.
Why do I want to marry a guy who treats me as tyrants treat peons?

She stands close, moves her lips while reading, and finally points to the word tyrants

I see it, says she. Tyrants treat--noun, verb. It's like a little sentence.

Right, says I. That's exactly what it is.

And you want me to put as in front of little sentences.

You got it, says I, but I'm not the one wanting you to do it. It's that tyrant boyfriend of yours--and his mother. They're the ones who want you to trade in your charming colloquialisms for a pile of tortilla dough.

She's silent again but I can see the little wheels turning behind those baby-blue eyes so I write one last sentence on the board:

Do you want to spend the rest of your life with someone who, when you tell him in a moment of passion that you love him just like he is comes back with "As, you idiot! I love you just as you are," or would you rather stick with someone willing to love you just as you are regardless of your like usage? 

She takes a while to get to the end but when she's done she blushes again and looks down at her watch. For a minute I think I've got her attention but then she smiles brightly and says, "Look at the time! I hear a tortilla calling," and then she's through the door faster than a jalapeno through a puppy's gut--and she doesn't even pay my fee.  

It's too bad, I tell you. We could make beautiful grammar together.


Dana said...

Like it!

Bardiac said...

This is wonderful! Made me smile!

Anonymous said...

This is brilliant!

Bev said...

Thanks! I blame my students, who challenged me to come up with a comprehensible way to explain "like" and "as." I don't know whether it works as instruction, but it sure was fun to write!