Academic journal article English Journal

From Awkward to Still Awkward, but More Chill

Academic journal article English Journal

From Awkward to Still Awkward, but More Chill

Article excerpt

From Awkward to Still Awkward, but More Chill

I was kicked out of AP English. A senior in 1983, I had been dabbling in English for eight years, having come from Viet Nam without knowing one word of this improbably illogical language. I thought I was managing just fine; after all, I was coeditor of the yearbook and talked constantly.

Talking, though, was ephemeral. Mistakes floated away. As long as the essence of the meaning landed, all was forgiven. I was in Fort Worth, Texas, where aint and reckon and Wranglers reigned supreme. No one was going to have a cow over some misspoken words.

But, with regard to writing-as in fiction-it was all in the details.

I signed up for AP because that was what the smart kids did. There was no prerequisite. First day, though, as I sat among twenty or so smarties, Mrs. Soriano handed out an essay prompt. I don't remember the topic, but I do remember red marks swirling my returned paper and a private talk after class.

See, no one worthy of AP would have written: The vegetables are cook. Mrs. Soriano inserted a crimson "-ed" next to "cook," to render a correct "cooked."

"Why?" I argued. "The sentence is in present tense, thus 'are' and 'cook.' Both present tense. They match!"

Her answer: "It doesn't sound right."

I adamantly shook my head. "Nothing in English sounds right, so I have to use logic."

Next day, that logic landed me next door in Mrs. Robinson's class. She chose "cooked" too, adding, "I can't say why, it just sounds right." So I selected a desk and sighed. This class was not AP, not even close. Students slept and chewed gum and read pages unread at home. Here, I would be able to take plenty of time and review the basics. That was code for grammar. In my case, that meant verb oddities and the numerous phrases marked "awkward."

The problem stemmed from my logical math brain. I liked for things to make sense, like algebra and trig. One equation led to the next, and after half a notebook's worth of calculations, the answer had to be an exact "2." I applied the same calculations to English. So if the tense must stay consistent, then all verbs in a sentence must match. Are and cook.

To learn English, I ripped apart the American Heritage Dictionary. On the page, spelling and vocabulary proved easy. I simply accepted how each word was spelled, as I accepted what each word meant. But when I ventured into pronunciation, my head hurt. Cat should be kat, night should be nite, knife should be nife. I gave up and memorized the letter order of every word while remembering that, when spoken, the word followed a different set of letters. That took years and many Tylenols.

To aid in this adventure, I would sound out words according to a Vietnamese pronunciation key. "Sophisticated" was, to me, "Sô-phi-si-ti-cát-tịt." For years, and especially for twisty polysyllabic words, at times no one knew what I was saying. Still, I persevered. I attacked verb rules and word usages like theorems. It's vs. its, no problem. Lie, lay, lain vs. lay, laid, laid-ah, the nuance of transitive vs. intransitive was invented for me. Who vs. whom allowed perfect reasoning.

But English being English, there were exceptions to every rule. Endless verbs that refused "-ed" for past tense. Exhausting subjunctive forms. Even the supposedly simple can vs. could had me switching between them for hours. And I still had a 50 percent chance of getting it wrong.

In college I majored in journalism and then worked as a reporter. …

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