I went to a Grammar(less) School
Last week I came across a list of grammatical constructs that were explained using variations of the a man walked into a bar one-liner. I didn’t understand them all and still don’t, but one that resonated with me was this:
A gerund and an infinitive walk into a bar, drinking to forget.
Why should that have resonance? Well, you see, I was never taught English grammar at primary or secondary school by any means other than a single year of English language classes with ‘Whacker’ Wilkins at Kendal Grammar School (spot the irony in the school’s name) and, even then, most of his focus seemed to be on ‘unflattening’ our northern vowels.
So it was up to Nigel Molesworth, that scion of Geoffrey Willans’ imagination, to instruct me in the intricacies of English grammar via the pages of his Down With Skool quadrilogy on life at St Custard’s.
The books were famously illustrated by Ronald Searle and it is through his drawings and Molesworth’s narrative that I first came across the beast that is the gerund.
I met it again, many years later, when Firstborn was at secondary school, and we hosted Felicitas, her German penfriend, whose English was superb. One tea-time Felicitas told us that she’d previously learned about a ‘funny’ grammatical construct; the gerund. That was the cue for a family of four Brits to stare blankly at one another whilst wondering what exactly is a gerund, and rapidly changing the subject (“So, Felicitas, what do you think of Scotland?”).
Thereafter I made an effort to learn the intricacies of verbs functioning as nouns and ending in -ing. (I subsequently learned that gerunds also exist in the German language. What Felicitas must have found funny – as in peculiar – is that in German a gerund is just a capitalised infinitive rather than one whose spelling is changed to end with ‘ing’.)
More recently, I have also discovered that Down With Skool is not quite the nadir of academe that it first appears. What follows is the abstract from a thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts in The Faculty of Graduate Studies at the University of British Columbia:
Geoffrey Willans’ and Ronald Searle’s Molesworth books, published in four volumes between 1953 and 1959, are a series of boarding school parodies. Despite great sales success and cult popularity, the books have been dismissed by academics and book reviewers alike as dated satires. Isabel Quigly calls them “pure farce” (276), while Thomas Jones claims they are “terribly cosy” (para. 7). This thesis adopts three pertinent theories of Mikhail Bakhtin in order to reconsider the four books in the series – Down with Skool!, How to be Topp, Whizz for Atomms, and Back in the Jug Agane. Through the application of Bakhtin’s concepts of chronotope, heteroglossia and carnival, I show that the Molesworth books are more complex and radical than first assumed, and therefore constitute a remarkable response to the phenomenon of the boarding school genre. ©Elizabeth Jean Milner Walker 2009.
So there you have it. I learned my grammar from books that ‘constitute a remarkable response to the phenomenon of the boarding school genre’ – who’d have thunk it!
Here’s the limerick:
At St Custard’s, a school of renown,
Molesworth – who played the class clown –
Set out on an errand
And found that a gerund
Is a verb that acts as a noun!
(This is misleading because in Molesworth’s experience, gerunds are actually creatures with a trunk-like nose, a specimen of which was discovered in the grounds of St Custard’s by Kennedy and taken into captivity – as any fule kno!)
Postscript: Here are the grammatical ‘one-liners’ referenced above:
An Oxford comma walks into a bar, where it spends the evening watching the television, getting drunk, and smoking cigars.
• A dangling participle walks into a bar. Enjoying a cocktail and chatting with the bartender, the evening passes pleasantly.
• A bar was walked into by the passive voice.
• An oxymoron walked into a bar, and the silence was deafening.
• Two quotation marks walk into a “bar.”
• A malapropism walks into a bar, looking for all intensive purposes like a wolf in cheap clothing, muttering epitaphs and casting dispersions on his magnificent other, who takes him for granite.
• Hyperbole totally rips into this insane bar and absolutely destroys everything.
• A question mark walks into a bar?
• A non sequitur walks into a bar. In a strong wind, even turkeys can fly.
• Papyrus and Comic Sans walk into a bar. The bartender says, “Get out — we don’t serve your type.”
• A mixed metaphor walks into a bar, seeing the handwriting on the wall but hoping to nip it in the bud.
• A comma splice walks into a bar, it has a drink and then leaves.
• Three intransitive verbs walk into a bar. They sit. They converse. They depart.
• A synonym strolls into a tavern.
• At the end of the day, a cliché walks into a bar — fresh as a daisy, cute as a button, and sharp as a tack.
• A run-on sentence walks into a bar it starts flirting. With a cute little sentence fragment.
• Falling slowly, softly falling, the chiasmus collapses to the bar floor.
• A figure of speech literally walks into a bar and ends up getting figuratively hammered.
• An allusion walks into a bar, despite the fact that alcohol is its Achilles heel.
• The subjunctive would have walked into a bar, had it only known.
• A misplaced modifier walks into a bar owned by a man with a glass eye named Ralph.
• The past, present, and future walked into a bar. It was tense.
• A dyslexic walks into a bra.
• A verb walks into a bar, sees a beautiful noun, and suggests they conjugate. The noun declines.
• A simile walks into a bar, as parched as a desert.
• A gerund and an infinitive walk into a bar, drinking to forget.
• A hyphenated word and a non-hyphenated word walk into a bar and the bartender nearly chokes on the irony
– Jill Thomas Doyle