A Mentor to Remember

If anyone could read this particular post, I’d like it to be Sr. Mary Florence, the teacher I had in the 5th, 6th and 8th grades at Sacred Heart School in San Jose, California.  She was a ruthless editor, far tougher than any editor I’ve worked with at a newspaper, magazine or web media company. She drilled the rules of grammar into my pre-pubescent head.

Thanks to Sr. Mary Florence and the other nuns who taught me English, I have retained a lifelong fascination with dangling participles.  “Lying in the gutter, Hannah found her lost watch,” still makes me laugh out loud. I apply the “Hannah” test to any clause-containing sentence I write to make sure my subject doesn’t metaphorically wind up in the gutter.

“Ambiguous antecedents” is another weak spot of mine, a particularly heinous grammatical crime that I find all too easy to commit. “My purse was in the car, but now it’s gone.” What’s gone – the purse or the car? That’s how easy an ambiguous antecedent can slip into a sentence.  An ever-watchful sentinel when it came to grammar, Sr. Mary Florence would never have let an error like that escape her red pen.

But I owe Sr. Mary Florence for more than the rigorous training she gave me in grammar and composition. She was the first one to encourage me to write, and she allowed me to see that my writing could affect others. When our class took a day trip to the Moffett Field Naval Air Station we all had to write about our experience when we got back to school.  As I recall, my essay contained some funny observations about how our class, especially the girls, interacted with the sailors who escorted us around the facility.

Sr. Mary Florence asked me to read my paper to the class. I remember standing next to her desk in front of the class. I had a death grip on my paper and struggled to keep my voice steady and not trip over my words in my nervousness. The class listened and actually laughed at all the right places. It was a revelation to me that something I wrote could provoke that kind of reaction. The glow I felt lasted all afternoon, and I can still feel it in retrospect.

Thanks to Sr. Mary Florence, I started thinking about a writing career when I was 13.  That one positive experience in her class sustained me through years of hard work and rejections. Sometimes I don’t know if I should bless her or blame her. It’s been a rocky road at times. But having someone believe in you is a gift that lasts a lifetime.

I’m sad to admit that I lost track of Sr. Mary Florence. The last time I saw her was when she visited her fellow nuns at my high school. I was struck by how small she seemed. I realized that she hadn’t shrunk, I had just grown. Freed from having to maintain the teacher-student discipline, she was warm and friendly, and a bit fluttery. She even cracked a smile, something she rarely did in class.

In her honor I’d like to end my post with “Weird Al” Yankovic’s ode to grammar, “Word Crimes.” It’s a parody of Robin Thicke’s song “Blurred Lines.” I’d like to think my former writing teacher would appreciate “Weird Al’s” message.

Introducing Myself

Hello – my name is Maureen. I am excited to be taking Blogging 101. I’m not exactly new to blogging, but I have a lot to learn. In my life thus far I’ve worked as a newspaper reporter, a fiction writer, an editor and above all else, a parent. In the latter capacity I’ve had to tend to an astonishing number of small-to-medium animals over the years, including more than a dozen cats, half a dozen dogs, several “free” goldfish, hamsters and enough pet rats to develop an allergy to rodents. I have an incredibly patient husband, a boisterous dog and two grown sons who both got married over the summer. (I’m still recuperating from the joyous events!)

I live in the Pacific Northwest in a very old house in need of remodeling, situated in an equally old neighborhood full of vintage houses.  My rambling garden is at a point where it could use some renovation, much like my life. I am at times both impulsive and indecisive. On a recent whim I bought a baby windmill palm tree,   with the vague notion of creating a tropical oasis. Now I’m stalled trying to determine the best place to plant it in my (soon-to-be) rain-soaked yard.

Through this blog I’d like to connect to others on their journeys through life, which may help me figure out my own next steps in the process. If I’m still at it a year from now, I hope to have developed amazing blogging skills, garnered a lot of blog friends and gained a better insight into my own life. I know I can learn a lot from this blogging community. After all, we’re all in this together, right?

Don’t Hate on Me, and Other Signs of Preposition Abuse

Today I want to talk about an alarming trend I’ve noticed concerning preposition abuse. I don’t know what it is about these generally small, innocuous words that bring out the bully in people. Yet I’ve seen and heard these stalwart little grammar workhorses misused time and again.

For example, take “on”.  A useful preposition, that in a reasonable world would only draw attention to itself when the writer has to decide between “up on” and “upon” (much like “in” and its dilemma of “in to” vs. “into”).

The whole mission of this tiny part of speech is to indicate the position of something relative to something else, as in “I put the diamond-encrusted collar on the cat.” Yet time and again “on” is put to the blush by being asked to define emotional relationships and perform other tasks for which it wasn’t designed.

I became aware of this problem the first time I saw the phrase “believe on the Lord.” Since then I’ve heard perfectly nice people say atrocious things like “don’t hate on me” and “Look at the way that boy loves on his mama.” What did that two-letter word do to deserve this kind of treatment?

Unfortunately, “on” isn’t the only preposition that gets abused on a regular basis. Take the aforementioned “in”.  Though I was a mere child, I remember when compound-word atrocities like “love-ins” “sit-ins” and even “be-ins” affronted my tender ears.

I also have learned that prior to the 1960s people paired “in” with various forms of the verb “to do”. The results could be sinister (“his ex-partner did him in with a tire iron”) or folksy (“I’m all done in after plowing the back 40”). Being “done in” can be likened to being “tuckered out”- and in the process another preposition is abused.

And “at” hasn’t escaped mistreatment, either. “Where it’s at” is a particularly egregious example of how a helpless little preposition can be tortured. What’s worse, it’s neither a particularly informative nor helpful phrase.

It wasn’t always thus. During the Regency, my favorite historical period, people who were literate tended to be more precise with their language. It is one of the aspects of Regency-set fiction that readers seem to particularly enjoy. And woe betide any Regency writer who has his or her characters fling prepositions around willy-nilly, without regard for their meaning and function.

Can you imagine Jane Austen allowing Elizabeth Bennet to ask Mr. Darcy to quit hating on her family just because her sisters acted silly and her mother appeared encroaching? Or explain to him why she felt obliged to love on them, even when they embarrassed her?

As a preposition-abuser might say, just think on that!

These clearly perturbed Regency gentlemen may be in the throes of trying to determine “where it’s at”.