This happened during my early years at CIEFL, Hyderabad, sometime during 1994 (yeah…that far back…). Four of us research scholars, Pradeep, Sanjiv, Bibhuti, and I, would teach grammar and spoken English to high school students at a school nearby. We were some kind of guest teachers and were required to teach for an hour in the mornings from 7 to 8. The school employed a regular English teacher too, who taught all high school classes.
This was my first experience with teaching and that too teaching grammar!! I used to be nervous as hell in the first year. One spoke and wrote tolerably good English without knowing the nuances of grammar. Now I had to teach grammar and moreover, had to learn grammar!! Fortunately, friends with more experience and wisdom in this field told me that the English grammar syllabus for high school is invariably taken from Wren & Martin’s High School English Grammar and Composition and that it is a simple enough book to understand and teach. From then on, it was W&M all the way.
I started teaching nouns, pronouns, adjectives, adverbs, and so on as required by the school syllabus, with lots of examples and some bit of humour. And slowly I gained in confidence. One of the typical tasks based on grammar was a task called ‘identify the part of speech of the underlined words.’ A sentence would be given and some words would be underlined and students would be asked to identify the parts of speech of these words – whether the word is a noun, an adjective, an adverb, a pronoun, or a preposition, or any other part of speech. After completing their prescribed syllabus on grammar, I created this ‘identify parts of speech’ task with a number of sentences and asked the students to solve it in class and I was helping them. This was being done orally as well and students were shouting out the answers. After correcting them on a couple of occasions, I noticed that they were repeating the mistakes. I took a closer look at the mistakes…they identified ‘it’ as a preposition…I told them that ‘it’ is a pronoun and explained with examples…(he, she, it…that sort of thing)…and told them how ‘it’ cannot be a preposition…then they repeatedly identified is, if, am, so, and do as prepositions too…I corrected them and explained to them that is, am, and do are helping verbs and if and so are conjunctions. They weren’t willing to listen to my explanations and stubbornly asserted that these words were prepositions. I wondered why they were being so adamant about this…I again explained the meanings of these words separately as well in context and asked them if they had any doubts…they were hesitant…they looked as if they understood what I explained, but seemed reluctant to accept… I was slowly beginning to lose my patience and raised my voice…then one student stood up cautiously (and bravely, I can say now with hindsight) and said tentatively…”Sir, our English teacher told us that any two letter word is a preposition…”
“Yes, sir…that’s what our regular teacher told us…you are now telling us that two letter words can also be pronouns, conjunctions, and also helping verbs…what to do, Sir?” I said to myself, “but how can this person do this? Forget about ‘am’ and ‘is’ and ‘be,’ can’t this person see that at least ‘it’ is a pronoun and not a preposition?”
This bothered me and I tried to find out on what basis such a bizarre definition of the preposition was given. For various reasons, I couldn’t have asked the teacher directly, so I went back to good old W&M to see if it could give me any clues…I started reading how different parts of speech were described…I noticed that each one had some kind of a definition…noun: noun is a word used as the name of a person, place or thing…simple…adjective is a word used with a noun to add something for its meaning…pronoun is a word used instead of a noun…simple…preposition is a word placed before a noun or pronoun to show in what relation the person or thing denoted by it stands in regard to something else…huh…got it?
No? Ha ha ha...neither did I...
And among the prepositions listed were at, by, for, in, of, off, on, to, up, out…and since the preposition’s definition was a loopy and torturous one, their regular English teacher took the easy way out and proclaimed that any two letter word is a preposition…get it…?