They say that you should live in a house for at least a year before you begin renovating. This makes sense to me. You have to live in a place to understand how you are going to use it, where you are going to store your snow boots during the summer and your fans during the winter, where you are going to want your reading chair and where the mixing bowls should go.
I think this is true of language, as well. You have to live in a language a long time to understand it and figure out how you want to use it.
This occurred to me the other day at dinner when our friend the Latin teacher happened to mention the accusative, as I suppose Latin teachers are wont to do, and someone, a well educated middle aged someone, asked what the accusative was. We all launched into examples. “I hit your head.” “I banged the chair.” But one man said, “I gave her a present.” The Latin teacher and I looked at each other. Before she could say dative (or is it genitive there?), I said, “Actually, that is an indirect object” and the conversation ground to a halt. No one except the Latin teacher and I were clear on indirect objects, let alone ditransitive verbs (verbs that take an indirect object and a direct object).
The funny thing to me is that I always thought I was bad at grammar. And I think I was. The lowest standardized test score I ever got was on the English achievement test. (Maybe I should not publicize this.).
But now that I have lived inside English for many decades, and deployed nouns and verbs and prepositions and gerunds and participles in various ways with varying degrees of success, I have come further than I ever thought was possible.
Now, nouns stand straight and tall, immutable, the rest of the sentence pointing towards them, or maybe the nouns themselves are doing the pointing — a far more tactile way of thinking than saying a noun is a person, place, or thing, which is what I used to say to my students, thinking I had captured noun-hood. Now, I can see how the different elements of a sentence function in a tangible, ligature-like way, which I suppose is how physical therapists view hamstrings. For instance, I know my P.T. has a very clear picture of how my hamstring functions, or is supposed to function, whereas I just use it, or don’t use it, as the case may be. I do not even know if hamstrings are plural or singular. Does one say, I ripped my hamstring, or I ripped my hamstrings? Not once in my life have I ever pictured a hamstring, although now I imagine three ropes running down the back of my leg thanks to my PT’s graphic descriptions.
There is a famous story by Kitty Burns Florey called Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog, which, at first, I did not love, and now I do. Sister Bernadette teaches her students to diagram sentences with a kind of religious zeal and by the time you are done reading the story, you, too, are infected with zeal. At least I was. When I was in fifth grade we diagrammed sentences,and it was one of the few tasks I never understood or mastered. Only now could I really diagram a sentence. And it has taken decades of living inside English, of using English.