I once read that about 20 percent of people are “grammar sensitive,” meaning that poor grammar activates an almost allergic response in such people. While the average Joe either shrugs off or fails to notice grammatical glitches, we grammar-sensitive types lose complete respect for a writer who confuses affect with effect. I’ve come to believe that this predilection is built into our DNA.
I had most of my education in a Montreal French school modeled after the Lycée system in France. We sang La Marseillaise every morning. We learned more about Louis XIV than about Louis Riel. We also learned grammar at a level I can only describe as breathtaking, having witnessed what passes for grammatical education in my kids’ schools. By the time we got to Grade 3, my classmates and I were parsing complex sentences into their clauses and subclauses and expected to label every speech part with nuanced precision. I loved the stuff. I also knew it was not normal to love the stuff. When my Grade 4 teacher asked our class of 30 who liked grammar, only three other timid hands went up with my own.
For better or worse, it seems my 15-year-old daughter has inherited the gene. I did nothing to foster grammar sensitivity in her – she was just born this way. By Grade 2 she was pointing out her friends’ grammar mistakes (resulting in a few of them no longer being her friends). She’s since learned to hold her tongue, but her syntactic instincts are as acute as ever. Here’s an excerpt from an email she recently sent me from Queen’s university, where she was spending a week in an enrichment studies program. “Our teacher is cool. Her only flaw so far has been to confuse complementary with complimentary.” ’Nuff said.