Tense about helping verbs

I’m tense about helping verbs. It’s come to my attention that there are quite a few of these things and not everyone seems to agree about how many there are. Really? Fifteen or twenty-three or thirteen, and are these all the same modal auxiliaries? WHAT? Sweet Baby Jesus, help me. This is not a precise business, this thing they call the English language. What will I do? I’m stunned by my lack of understanding. Okay, not really. I knew I didn’t know anything about helping verbs, and it made me tense. Got a handbook, though, and some URLS to a few killer pages by grammar gurus.

We all use these words: rough, dough, slough, cough, yet the /ough/ sounds makes no sense whatsoever: rough /uh/; dough /o/ (that would be a long “o” sound); slough /oo/; and cough /ah/.  How does one explain that? Give me a pictographic language any day to figure out. English is crazy. “I before E except after C, or when sounded like A as in neighbor or weigh.”  What? You’re kidding, right?

Helping verbs–sounds so cozy, doesn’t it? Like these are better words than any others because they are helpers. They are the charity of the English language, making up somehow the gaps in need by “helping” us out when we need them most.

Here are some that seem to be prominent: am, as, are, was, were, been, be, can, has, shall, will, do, does, did, have, should, may, might, being, would, must, could, had. Helping verb specialists group these together in bunches sometimes. Egads. Each distinct grouping seems to have something special to help with, too. It’s not just about being helpful, it’s also about being specifically helpful, like the difference between a middle reliever and a closer in baseball. Maybe. I say if you can throw the knuckleball, you belong in the game anywhere.

I can’t teach verbs. I’m not even sure I ever say the word verb very often in classes. I teach thinking and acquisition of communication strategies through writing. I teach that one needs to read so much good writing and learn to recognize bad writing that one can produce what is good when needed. We talk about details and  work deep in text, but I don’t call anything a participle or a conjunction. Damn. Am I a traditionalist? Using models of good writing to teach writing? No, I’m not. I love Hemingway and Faulkner. And Dickens and Woolf. But I wouldn’t teach these authors to help people learn to write… not only. I teach them in literature classes and sometimes allude to the fact that prolific and famous authors can teach us a lot about writing: their writing processes, their work ethics, their struggles, their fears, and their ego-trips. Learn to write by doing what they do–nah–it’s too hard for freshman comp.

And now we know I can’t teach helping verbs… does knowing what a helping verb is mean one has “helping verb knowledge” or does that knowledge help me know about knowing language rather than writing in a language? How do I separate language from writing? Can I? Should I? I must.

I remember, not at all fondly, learning French (after having tanked in Latin, Greek, Russian, Spanish, Italian, and Japanese) and thinking: I’m not learning anything about writing in French. I’m only learning about how the French language is put together and about the various kinds of words and how all parts of speech fit together. I had to have it for graduate school, and it was lovely to listen to my teacher (from Belgium–he frequently got angry at us and ranted in French–it was as pretty as chocolate). But learning the parts of French was about acquiring content of language, not language for speaking or thinking. I was early on frustrated because I was only thinking in building blocks: the legos of language.

I wanted to read and think and write and couldn’t do it very well in French (I think I couldn’t do much beyond read at the 5th grade level). I’m not sure I cared about speaking… that would have meant I’d have to think on my feet and really do some fancy work linguistically. NOT what I wanted. I wanted to read and then learn to think.

I learned 500 verbs, and conjugated a ton of them. I remember manger: to eat. I couldn’t conjugate a French verb now to save my life. Shoot, I couldn’t conjugate an English verb. I had to look up what a helping verb was because I couldn’t remember. I do not write along in English and think, aha, here is the perfect spot for a helping verb. Now, I see it’s time to switch tense. I’m going into pluperfect subjunctive now… check me out! Didn’t I just use a helping verb? YIPPEEE. I’m righteous.

Do you even know what a pluperfect subjunctive is? I thought so. I had to look this up, too. Subjunctive has to do with a verb mood. VERBS HAVE MOODS? This certainly explains a lot about why I am so gushy and overwrought as a writer. My verbs are moody.

What do I do with this as a writing teacher? I can’t explain what I do as a writer, let alone how the language works. I KNEW it. I should have gone to A&P school. (Airframe & Powerplant… yes, that’s right, I was just moody, wasn’t I? It’s tangible work and that has its appeal. I mean, you make the helicopter run or you don’t.)

Now I’ve acknowledged that I really can’t remember a thing about how my own language is put together and only remember one French verb which I cannot conjugate and might have best been an A&P mechanic. And I feel like sometimes I am not a teacher of writing. What do I do?

As a writer, I think I keep doing what I’ve been doing: read a lot of really interesting writing across genres, compelling stuff that rivets me, find blogs that I think are witty, read science fiction whenever I can, read Victorian novels and poetry, read magazines like Smithsonian and National Geographic (and listen to heavy metal–that helps me write). And dream on. Or at least let my brain mess around with words in a variety of ways and formats online and off, in print and invisible, so that I can talk about how writing gets crafted. So MY writing might help me be a better writing teacher or teacher of anything with writing (which is everything I do).

Writing is built. Sometimes, it’s sloppy and people write like they talk and we all know that’s bad, very bad, way bad, burn in the afterlife bad. So those folks who do that need to do more reading–reading like a writer. Hello. How do we think people ever learned to write before now, before the giant freshman comp machine got started in the 19th century? By blowing ink on cave walls? Divine intervention and inspiration? By reading and talking about that reading and investigating that reading. Doh! Reading like writers. There’s an essay I’ve read a few times in Writing Spaces (Volume 2), “How to Read Like a Writer” by Mike Bunn. Try it on for size. It helps me think about how I can be a writing teacher without being able to say what a helping verb is. If there are such things as “helping” essays, then this is one, and Writing Spaces has a load of them.

While I’m tense about helping verbs and nearly everything else that makes up the English language, and I’m apparently woefully ignorant about helping verbs at least, there are a few things I know are right:

1) learning how a language operates is content;

2) learning how to write in a language is hard work and comes long after 1) and sometimes after you’ve forgotten 1);

3) learning to be a writer in a language is about learning how to think in that language; and

4) learning to write with ease in a language, having fun, playing with tone, and phrasing, fooling around with words, is about reading in that language and then finding a groove for what sounds good at a given time for a given audience in a given genre… and being able to do that as a writer, editor, reader of your own writing.

That’s art, not craft, and art is what happens after content is mastered, after craft is mastered, and art is way damn hard. Worth it, yes, but hard. Writing students should learn that. So.

What makes me think freshman, 18-19 year old students right out of high school, or nontraditional students out of college for 5-10+ years, have the content of language all figured out so that I can teach them about higher order critical thinking and advanced writing strategies? I would be wrong if I thought students were all set in content of language knowledge. I need to teach that, including, (oh help me) helping verbs, as I teach the thinking stuff… think first, own your knowledge, write, edit, publish. Repeat.


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