In my senior year at Los Gatos High School I received a wonderful gift: Mrs. Goodwin, a substitute English teacher who had returned to teaching after a quarter-century raising a family.
Tall, thin and stern-looking, she drilled us late-1950s seniors on parts of speech, independent clauses, participles, prepositions, verbs and other niceties of a great language -- core parts of which most of us hadn't had to confront seriously in our "social-adjustment" school era.
Most of my classmates were horrified. Many, perhaps most, tried to transfer out. I don't think she was hired back. Too bad.
Yet I, for some reason, responded enthusiastically to her sentence diagrams and exercises. I had escaped most "regular English" by enrolling in speech, another great gift that overcame a grade-school fear of speaking to more than two kids at a time, even if I knew them most of my life. "Speech" was taught by another great teacher, Jack Cody.
Yet his focus on elocution, debate skills, extemporaneous reading, speech writing and delivery crowded out the more mundane elements of the language.
Mrs. Goodwin ended my blissful ignorance of such things.
At San Jose State College my appreciation for the language grew. On my own time I translated portions of Chaucer from Middle English, correcting his terrible spelling of the new, rapidly evolving language. A relatively recent translation of the Old English Beowulf tale, by the great contemporary Irish poet Seamus Heaney, has Old English on one page and Heaney's wonderful line-by-line modern translation on the facing page.
Our modern American English is still evolving, I'm glad to report -- yet with mixed feelings.
Much later, five-plus years of teaching newswriting (as a community lecturer) at Stanford University cemented that knowledge as I tried to figure out how to explain errors in grammar and style to students steeped all their educational lives in the looser, overly padded "essay style" or term-paper writing.
I appreciate the evolution of language, in which rules change according to common usage by real people in the real world.
And yet I still find myself caught by surprise by basic grammatical mistakes of professional newscasters on television and even National Public Radio, on top of frequent mistakes in newspapers and (less so) in magazines. Yes, everyone makes typographical errors and even "mental typos," mistakes of fact. Careful self-editing and having a good editor really helps, along with regular use of the Associated Press Stylebook and Strunk & White's thin, fun-to-read book, "The Elements of Style."
In recent years, I have become increasingly aware of how English as I have known and loved it is evolving, right before my eyes. I have evolved also, to the point when grammatical ignorance of professional journalists and announcers has ceased to make my back teeth hurt -- a common plaint of old-school grammarians.
The worst offense is an old one: the dread "dangling preposition," as in "Where are you going to?" Or a double-whammy mistake: "Who are you giving that to?" The latter sentence violates the dangling preposition and the who/whom distinction between subject and object. (Think "he/she/they" for "who" and "him/her/them" for whom. Or my shorthand: "he/who, him/whom.")
Thanks largely to McDonald's selling "over 5 kazillion" burgers, most of us have blurred "over" and "more than," relative height versus quantity. Similarly, "less" versus "fewer" for volume versus specific items. Aargh!
I have friends who orally correct television reporters and announcers when they utter expressions showing ignorance of the language they are being paid to utilize.
A special irritant is the misuse of "like" for "such as," confusing similarity with an example, as in, "Cities like San Francisco and San Jose...." There is scant similarity between the two, much less other places. But "such as" fits neatly.
As for "Conan the Grammarian," I first became acquainted with this anonymous critic when doing publications for the Palo Alto Medical Foundation. Whenever a questionable, or wrong, bit of language showed up in a newsletter I would receive a marked-up copy via in-house mail signed only by "Conan the Grammarian."
After several years, George Daughters, then a research scientist at the foundation, confessed over lunch to being the mysterious Conan. He told me grammatical errors triggered messages from his high school English teacher, Aggie Hochstrasser -- his Mrs. Goodwin, it seems.
I once was chided for beginning sentences with a conjunction, such as "and" or "but." I wrote in pre-email days to an expert grammar site for advice about that common practice. I received a response from a longtime grammarian based in Britain. He said while starting a sentence with a conjunction once was frowned upon it has since become acceptable.
"And I really mean that," he concluded his note.
As for proper use of participles, just try Googling that one. You won't find any simple shorthand rule(s). If you find one, please let me know.
But ending a sentence with a preposition, such as the simple "to" or "with," is another matter. The debate over this one goes back at least eight decades in the modern era, and for several centuries before that.
The ostensible rule -- passed on through generations in old-school grammar books -- has been ascribed to a remark by poet John Dryden in 1672 that was picked up by Robert Lowth, an 18th century bishop in London, in his "A Short Introduction to English Grammar."
John McWhorter, who writes a "Grumpy Grammarian" column in the New Republic magazine, tackled the rule head-on in a May 2013 essay. The rule's nonsense, he wrote, striking a blow for language evolution. Take that, Conan!
McWhorter led off with one of the best-known language anecdotes of the past century: When an aide on Winston Churchill's wartime staff corrected a dangling preposition in a "W.C." bulletin-board memo, Churchill scrawled a scathing response that also illustrated the awkwardness of trying to avoid such dangles:
"This is the kind of nonsense up with which I will not put."