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The Grammar Guardians

by  Joe Edwards

Studies have now proven what I think most of us have long suspected -- that diagramming sentences leads to nothing but increased ability to diagram sentences.

The same thing is true with drawing one line under the subject, two under the verb and drawing a circle around the direct object.  It is a means without an end, and in no way helps the student speak or write better.

An analogy to this ridiculous exercise in futility would be learning to fly an airplane.  Suppose I load you with books and workbooks, charts and graphs, and teach you everything there is to know about an airplane, right down to how far to pull the yoke back on takeoff, and how much rudder pedal to use in a 20 degree bank.  And then, once you have passed a written test with a satisfactory score, I tell you to get in the airplane and fly it.

You would crash and burn before you ever got off the runway.  You learn to fly an airplane only by flying it, and the same is true with English.

The English language evolved on its own, without the benefit of rules, and then we made up rules to fit what was already there.  Yet most educators, in their infinite stupidity, tend to view it the other way, and put millions of students through meaningless exercises in the expectation that they will learn to read and write well.

It is not so.

Who among you can tell me why you say "I" at times and "me" at other times.  Do they not both refer to the same person?  Or why do you say "went" instead of "gone"?  Do not both words mean the object is no longer there?

Of course they do, but one sounds right and the other sounds wrong, and that's why we use the proper word... most of the time.

Still, the language changes, and not according to the rules we use not to create it, but instead, to define it.

Is there, then, a definition of good English?

Yes, there is, and while I have never seen it in print, here it is:


Being aware of all this, Margaret Bishop -- our venerable English teacher for forty years in Miller, Missouri -- taught us to speak and write good English, but not by the traditional means.

The first thing she did when school started was take up all the workbooks and have some strong young student carry them out to the trunk of her car.  I'm sure she used them to start fires in her old wood stove.

Then she began to teach English.  She would start with a commonly made grammatical error, say, using "lay" when "lie" should have been used, teach it through example (just as one does learn to fly an airplane) all week until we were all sick of it, and then appoint us "Grammar Guardians" to go about among the other students, teachers and administrators, listening for that error.  When we heard it made, we were to have the erring soul sign our clipboard with the promise he would never make that mistake again.  We could then turn those signatures in to her for points -- one point for a student, two for a teacher and ten for an administrator.

At first, it was all taken in good humor, and the students, teachers and administrators would sign the "confessions", laugh and give mock apologies to the Grammar Guardian.  But as the year went on and the Grammar Guardians had more traps with which to catch the unwary, the entire school population began to make a serious attempt to always speak correctly.  In fact, on many occasions, a teacher or administrator would approach a Grammar Guardian about correct usage of the language.

It became a school wide game -- a wonderful game, that rapidly improved the self-image of the entire student body.  A collective pride pervaded the school, and the students all spoke of how they were better than the students of surrounding schools when it came to the use of the language.  Miss Bishop and the Grammar Guardians didn't let them forget it.

Now, nearly fifty years later, I have begun to correspond with old friends who were Grammar Guardians or our "victims".  I notice that after all this time, their grammar is still letter perfect, and that gives a good impression.

I read many excellent stories on Heartwarmers from wonderful writers everywhere, and I say to them that they didn't learn that from drawing lines under subjects or diagramming sentences.  They may not have had a Margaret Bishop, but they learned by listening to and reading "reputable speakers and writers of English".  So did I and so should we all.

I'll fly with those folks, anytime.

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