Why grammar is hard

When I was in the 9th grade at Brooklyn Technical High School, my English teacher stood at the board and said, ‘Your textbook defines a verb as a word that describes an action or state of being.’ On the board she wrote:

A verb describes an action or state of being.

Next she wrote this sentence on the board:

Eating custard pie, Peter is a picture of happiness.

Then she called on me to identify the verb in the sentence.

It seemed clear to me that eating expresses an action, so I answered, ‘Eating.’

To my surprise the teacher said, ‘No, eating is not the verb.’

I protested, ‘But the book says a verb is an action word. Eating is an action.’

The teacher responded with what was to her an apparently clear explanation: ‘Yes, but eating is a participle, not the verb in this sentence.’

I had no idea what a participle was, but I began looking for another action word in the sentence—without success.

Sensing my frustration, the teacher offered a hint. ‘Remember that a verb can describe a state of being.’

State of being, I thought. What is a state of being?

Scanning the sentence to find a word expressing a state of being, I considered happiness. Happiness seemed to express a state of being. I figure that if I knew what a verb was, I would be in a state of happiness. Unsure but hopeful, I asked, “Is happiness the verb?”

‘No,’ came the judgment.

After another minute or so, the teacher answered her own question:

‘The verb in this sentence is is.’

But it didn’t matter. Grammar made no sense to me, and I dismissed it as something I would never understand.

Dennis Baron in Whimbey, Arthur and Linden, Myra J. Teaching and Learning Grammar: The Prototype-Construction Approach. Chicago: BGF Performance Systems, LLC, 2001. Print. (4-5).

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