When I was in high school, some of my classmates called me a “walking dictionary.” When I started going out with the guy who became my first husband (we were in high school) his best friend said, “You kiss HER? Isn’t that like kissing a BOOK?”
It wasn’t my first choice (I wanted to be an artist), but I became an English major. I went almost all the way. I even took the exam to see if I COULD go all the way (I could have), but as I labored over the Graduate Record Exam, I realized a PhD program was not for me. I didn’t give a rat’s ass about literary criticism or graduate seminars in discussing the nocturnal emissions of random, ultimately forgotten commentators on the work of those who actually DID write things. I saw I could never subscribe to the idea of skin color or gender as genre. (“How do you really feel about that, Martha?”) The weird thing about how that turned out was that my chances of earning a living were better with a Masters than with a PhD. I had friends with PhDs who were earning what I was and had less job security. Who knew???
English teachers have the reputation of being pedants, and it’s a well-earned reputation. First, no one majors in English without liking to read. Most people who like to read also like words. Kids who’ve had enough English classes enter each new one proving that theory. “If I want a good grade, I have to use big words.” “Plethora” was an oft’ used word in those freshman composition papers. I can say with authority that the word appeared on a plethora of them.
Pedantry was a huge problem for me as an ESL teacher. I am sometimes pedantic, but it’s not my “go to” strategy. I think it negates effort. I think there’s a time and a place for it, but… I had students who were so afraid to speak English, who had been corrected so much during their schooling, that they wouldn’t even try because the pedantic hammer of some teacher somewhere had come down too hard. The purpose of language isn’t to get each word, each verb tense right, not even perfect pronunciation. The purpose of language is to express thoughts, feelings, ideas.
A funny thing about being an English teacher — for a period in the early 2000’s I tried online dating (I regret this with every fiber of my being). When I would tell men I was an English teacher, they often backed off from meeting. Some of them even said they didn’t want to be corrected all the time, giving me a deep insight to their previous relationships — or into them. Maybe they wanted to be the corrector, not the corrected.
Not that I never correct someone’s understanding of vocabulary. I corrected someone the other day. I felt weird about it, but ultimately, I had to.
As a writer I pretty much subscribe to this, written by John Steinbeck and placed in the mouth of a character in a book I haven’t read.
“I like a lot of talk in a book and I don’t like to have nobody tell me what the guy that’s talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks. . . . figure out what the guy’s thinking from what he says. I like some description but not too much of that. . . . Sometimes I want a book to break loose with a bunch of hooptedoodle. . . . Spin up some pretty words maybe or sing a little song with language. That’s nice. But I wish it was set aside so I don’t have to read it. I don’t want hooptedoodle to get mixed up with the story.”
In other news, my neighbor just dropped this off on my front porch. The neighbor to the north makes bread as her business. This is advertising, but how cool is this? It’s made from locally grown and milled wheat flower and honey from the little town of La Jara, beautiful fruit of Heaven from Tumbleweed Bakery.