A Woman of Distinction

In the twelfth grade - and now I've divulged my age, to any strangers reading this: you know I'm older than a twelfth-grader - I stayed after class one afternoon for an important conversation with my English teacher.

(Not to get sidetracked again, but we're not supposed to call them English teachers anymore, because, after all, they could be Venezuelan or something. They are now "Teachers of English," thank you very much.)

I asked her, because I respected her immensely and was certain she would know: what are the practical differences between the applications of the phrases "It isn't" and "It's not"?

in return, I got a puzzled expression from this unignorably brilliant former nun, along with a request for clarification: "Well, grammatically they're the same, if that's what you mean. ...What do you mean?"

I shifted around in the smooth formica of the desk seat. "I know they're equivalent," I replied. "What I mean is, they're a little bit different, aren't they? And isn't there any rule for applying one instead of the other?"

Now, I don't know what they teach you in Teacher of English School, specifically, or what other stuff you pick up along the way, but I get the impression that hair-splitting seventeen-year-olds are not covered in the curriculum. Fortunately, she was fascinated - she was good at that - and she prompted me to explain my hunch in more detail.

"Look," I said, "I know they mean the same thing, but there have to be times you'd use one and times you'd use the other one. Sometimes, you know, it just 'isn't,' and sometimes it's 'not.' *You* know everything about this language, so, you know ... how do you ... know?"

Mrs. Strange looked at me with her signature look, an unblinking slight smile I always took as a mixture of pride, amusement and recognition. I've never forgotten it.

"Neither is wrong in either setting," she explained, pausing for emphasis the way she did. "I think you'll have to decide on a case-by-case basis."

I was disappointed.

I wanted an answer, a definitive answer, just like I wanted for everything else in my life at the time.

But Mrs. Strange was explaining, in her patient and compassionate way, that it wasn't coming. It - English, life, and everything else - really is as complicated and uncertain as I was afraid it was.

In the years since graduating, I've spent many hours agonizing over ostensibly equivalent turns of phrase like "isn't" versus "it's not" time and time again. And I've carefully considered countless other seemingly trivial matters that become as important as you make them.

And I have of course realized, again and again, that there are no shortcuts, no ways to make one decision and be done with it. I've realized she was right.

Of course she was right.


Thank you, Mrs. Strange.

It's crossed my mind that I don't really know if you're still alive or not.

It's not important, though, whether you are, or were, or what. That was a great bit of teaching, one of many, and that makes you a great teacher.

Thank you.


Thomas said...

I've just converted to a 'it isn't' man. I believe it sounds more professional. Oh, and there's always the saying, "You think it's funny when your nose is runny, but really, it'snot!"

Colin said...