We Can All Do Better, by former U.S. senator, Rhodes Scholar, NBA champion basketball player, and best-selling author Bill Bradley, can't help but induce a flinch. It's hard to imagine anyone doing better than Bill Bradley. But the rest of us. . . guess we need to step it up! That somewhat guilty feeling that we all could work a little harder, be a little smarter . . . it's as American as apple pie and snake-oil salesmen. We're all okay, but we all could use a little work. And it's why a lot of us get a little irritated by corrections to our grammar. Let's look at how we can work with a little less judgment by arming ourselves with a little more knowledge.
Grammar can be prescriptive: NEVER end a sentence with a preposition. Don't split infinitives. Grammar can be descriptive: Independent clauses have a subject and a predicate. Verbs in English are made up of several words. Pronouns take the place of nouns, and there are several types. Transitive verbs can have objects; intransitive verbs cannot.
Wait, all of a sudden there are GRAMMAR words in there! "Transitive verbs"--it's enough to send some of us screaming down the hallways of the grammar school in our mind. All of a sudden, things get complicated, and we're afraid we're going to make a mistake.
It's just terminology, and having a grasp of it is sometimes enough to relieve a lot of the judgment we place on grammar and usage. Usage is often really driven by socioeconomic background and class, and that sensitivity to class is what we react to when someone talks about our grammar errors. The Brits sometimes have a much better, and more honest, handle on this that we do: They refer to upper-class accents and U and non-U usage very straightforwardly.
But let's let go of that aspect of grammar for now, and just concentrate on naming things. Naming the parts of that title of Bradley's, for one thing. What is "can," what is "all," and what is "better"?
"Can" is part of the whole verb "can do". Whether we can or can't do something depends on ability. The word used to describe verbs that describe ability is modal. So "can" is a modal verb.
"We" is a pronoun, a first person plural. It refers to a group that includes the speaker. "All" is a pronoun. The two together refer to the same group, the same item, the same actors in the sentence. "All" renames and refines the information that "we" conveys. Nouns that rename other nouns are called appositives. Other similar appositives would be "we fans" (of the Rangers, one hopes) and "us employees."
"Better" is interesting. It is the comparative term in the series of adjectives "good, better, best." We have the adjective (good), the comparative (better), and the superlative (best). Here "better" is interesting because most people think of it as an adjective, and adjectives modify nouns, right? Think of "a better car," "a better job," "a better mansion and a yacht." Well, here it seems to be telling us how we can do. Words that modify verbs are adverbs, though, right?
Words in English don't actuallly fit neatly and unchangeably into one of those eight parts of speech so many of us learned in grammar school. The English language is a lot more complicated and interesting. Words slide between those categories, and even grammarians don't agree: Some claim there are six verb tenses, others claim nine or twelve! And as for how words are spelled . . . well, time changes that. It just does, much as some us may continue to mourn "minuscule"' as it gets smaller and smaller and diminishes to "minischule".
So yes, we can all do better, but more by means of curiousity about our language than by beating ourselves up about bad grammar or lack of knowledge about grammar.
Bill Bradley has achieved and excelled in sports, politics, and thought. He looks at errors and mistakes and uses them purposefully. His book is well worth reading, and it discusses, delightfully, not only what may be wrong right now and has been wrong in the past but also what is right and has been right.
And his grammar is pretty darn great.
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Ellen Scordato has 25 years' book publishing experience as an editor, copy editor, proofreader, and managing editor. She's now a partner in The Stonesong Press, a nonfiction book producer and agency. In addition to her work at Stonesong, Ellen has taught grammar, punctuation, and style at the New School for more than 12 years in the English Language Studies department and taught English as a Second Language at Cabrini Immigrant Services and the College of Mount Saint Vincent Language Institute.