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How Mrs. Stellmacher ruined me for bad English

Thu, 08/30/2018 - 09:57 -- Phil Egan

I am a recovering grammaholic. I ask for your understanding and pity.

As a retired member of the Grammar Police, I was one of those despised individuals who was always correcting other people’s bad grammar.

Not that I didn’t (and don’t) make mistakes myself. Far from it.

The root of my problem lies in the fact that, while in high school, I was fortunate enough to have an English teacher who was in a league of her own in terms of excellence. She was intolerant of grammatical “monstrosities” – misplaced modifiers, sentence fragments (like the one in the preceding paragraph), incorrect subject-verb agreement, wrong word usage, and the like.

Classmates have talked about Mrs. Natalie Stellmacher for year. When you made a mistake in grammar, she had a way of glaring at you that would make your spirit whither. Even the big offensive linemen on the school football team lived in dread of her wrath.

I loved her. I always got good marks in English, but she knew that I was the guy who ran all the football and hockey betting pools at the school, which Mrs. Stellmacher considered a monumental waste of time.

“You should be writing,” she’d say, her finger wagging vigorously in my face.

I’ve pretty much broken myself of correcting other people’s grammatical errors, which I recognize as a bad habit. But, fifty-five years after leaving Mrs. Stellmacher’s English class, I still have little patience for the ones I hear from political commentators and sports broadcasters on television.

There are three, in particular, that always drive me crazy.

The first is the ever-increasing use of the “double is.” Try watching almost any unscripted show on TV and see how many you can spot.

For example, “The trouble is, is that…”.Or, similarly, “What I was saying was, was that….”.

Double-izzers tend to speak by linking clichés, rather than thinking in the context of sentences.

The other thing that makes me roll my eyes is when I hear someone on TV say, “If I would have gone there earlier,” for example, instead of saying “if I had….”.

That the kind of thing that would have resulted in one of Mrs. Stellmacher’s fearsome glares.

But her worst pet peeve (probably because it was so common) was the ghastly misplaced modifier.

I found some illustrations online that were designed to demonstrate the errors. For example:

“Irresponsibly texting while driving, the young moose was struck down and killed.”  The accompanying illustration depicts a moose driving a convertible down the forested highway.

“The kind mother handed out baloney sandwiches to all the kids in Ziploc bags.” In the illustration, the kids are all sitting in…well, you get the picture.

Finally, there was this gem. “At the park, I noticed my neighbour who was walking her dog in high heels.”

A poor choice of footwear for dogs, for sure.

Natalie Stellmacher may be gone, but she is sadly missed and her lessons never forgotten. She believed, as someone once said, that grammar is a reflection of your image.

Good or bad,” the saying goes, you have made an impression.

“And, like all impressions, you are in total control.”

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