How The Cowardly Lion Taught Me Grammar

On a cold, early-December evening in 1971, our sunken den was transformed into an arena of testosterone-driven action as my brother and I fought repeated battles of Rock ’em, Sock ’em Robots.

The battle lines are drawn.

Grunts of victory and groans of defeat drowned out the crooning of Mom’s favorite seasonal LP, The Andy Williams Christmas Album, as it belted out a new classic from the wooden stereo console:

♪ ♫ “It’s the most wonderful time of the yearrrr!” ♫ ♪


♪♫ “With the kids jingle-belling…” ♫ ♪


♪♫ “And everyone telling you ‘Be of good cheer!'” ♫ ♪ 



♪♫ “It’s the most wonderful time of the year!” ♫ ♪
“Take that!” shouted my brother, landing a sharp left jab on my square blue jaw. ZZZZZZ! cranked my robot’s ejected noggin, signaling his umpteenth demise. Who knew his plastic kisser was actually made of glass?
“Time to pay the piper!” demanded Brother, curling his hand into a noogie-fist, his middle knuckle jutting out a half inch more than the others. Deadly. A menacing look at my bruised shoulder told me he was ready to dive in and render another round of damage.
“Not fair! The blue guy’s head is looser – he never wins!” I whined in protest.
“That’s right … he’s a loser, and so are you!” 
He charged me, both hands poised to noogie, and pounced, trapping my smaller frame under his weight. I must have dodged dozens of flying fists from every direction and, scrambling to escape, slipped and banged my head on the stereo. Immediately, Mr. Blue Bird from Song of the South warbled on my shoulder, with Andy in the background sounding a little dazed, himself.
♪♫ “It’s the most wonderfulmost wonderfulmost wonderfulmost” ♫ ♪
“BOYS! Get in here!” Mom’s irritation cut through the thick aroma of fried pork chops and we froze. “NOW!” She meant business. Quickly jumping up and straightening our clothes, we tossed a few more punches back and forth, then moseyed to the kitchen, bumping the stereo on the way out.
♪♫ “…wonderful time of the YEARRRR!” ♫ ♪
It was quiet when we arrived at the kitchen’s saloon doors and slowly eased our way in. A ragged buzzard perched on the deadwood outside the window, eyeballing me hungrily. We faced the hanging judge, ready for the gallows.
“Ma’am.” I nodded and tipped an invisible hat.
“Wash your hands and set the table; dinner’ll be ready in ten minutes.”
That’s it? That’s the gunfight at the O.K. Corral? Whew! I wasn’t really in a hurry to die today.
“What’s for dinner?” I said, livening up. “I smell pork chops and macaroni and cheese. Can we have applesauce with it? Pork chops and applesauce – isn’t that swell?”  With my upper lip scrunched to the tops of my teeth, my impersonation of Peter Brady was right on the mark.
“Maybe,” she teased. 
“Please?! Please?! Pleasepleasepleasepleaseplease?”
“Yes … pork chops and applesauce.” She smiled. “Oh … that reminds me … your father’s record better not have a scratch on it or there’ll be hell to pay.”
Cue Theme from The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. 
The good was me, of course; the bad, my brother, and the ugly? A familiar stench that overwhelmed the earlier smells of browned pork fat and now tortured my discerning nose. Cabbage. Toucan Sam had nothing on me.
“Are we having cabbage?” Please say no.
Whew! Grabbing the plates, I made my way to the dining room.
“…Brussels sprouts,” she said, finishing her thought. 
“It’s okay!” I yelled, “nothing broke. I just set the stack down a little too hard.” Brussels sprouts – marvelous. The demon seed.
Dinner was over for everyone else and I still had three mini-cabbage heads mocking me from my plate. Splashes and humming could be heard in the kitchen, and while Mom washed the dishes, the other kids changed into their pajamas and piled into the den for the annual airing of The Wizard of Oz. 
I only had five minutes to act, and drastic times called for drastic measures. Using the spoon’s reflective properties, I covertly scoped the scene, glancing over at my father, who shuffled his paper and occasionally peered over the top with his finish-your-plate glare. 
In a bold move, I popped a whole sprout in my mouth, held my napkin over it, and let it drop into my lap and roll down my legs, where it disappeared under the table. Time was of the essence and I had to pull out the big guns from my 007 bag of tricks. Dad’s eyes slowly moved off the paper and traveled across the carpet. 
With a snap and a fold, he put the paper on the table. “Young man…” he began, then, after pausing for what seemed an eternity, reached down, picked up the wayward green ball-of-trouble, plucked off a dog-hair and glared. PLOP. Back on my plate. “Go ahead and take that to your mother, let her wash your face, then get ready for bed.”
Did he mean for me to get ready and go to bed now or get ready now for bed later? It was Wizard of Oz night! No…I’m sure he meant after the movie, but I’d proceed with caution.
Doing as he said, I quickly changed and stood quietly in the arch between the dining room and the den, a meek little lamb hoping to avoid the slaughter.  
“Come give us a kiss good night,” Mom said. I guess Dad meant now.
Looking at her with my meek little lamb eyes did me no good; Dad was adamant, and his word was law.
But I had a plan. I was not going to miss Wizard.
Cue Theme from Peter Gunn.
Stealthily I cracked my bedroom door and paused, holding my breath before taking a look through the teensy sliver. All clear. Creeping down the hall on all-fours, I came to the open vastness of the dining room and waited. Dad coughed, clearing his throat, and let out a grunt. 
“You want a drink?” he asked Mom. My heart picked up about 30 beats per minute…he’s coming!! 
Dashing over to the table, I disappeared underneath just as his feet lumbered through. Crawling up to the chair seats, I lounged on my stomach across two of them and watched tv through the holes in the white lace tablecloth. It was perfect. Dad passed back by, handed Mom her cocktail, and we all settled in to see the show.
It had reached my favorite part of the movie – the lion was about to sing!
The Courageous Case of If, Was, and Were.
The other day in conversation, I quoted from The Wizard of Oz and it took me back to that childhood memory … back to the night when the Cowardly Lion taught me a valuable lesson in grammar. That’s the reason I bore you with it today. 

It was a quote using the curious phrase, “If I were…,” which sounds wrong, but is absolutely correct. Correct? I were instead of I was? Say it ain’t so! But it is.

Since I learned this technique from the Cowardly Lion, this lesson is called, “The Courageous Case of If, Was, and Were.” We sprang for nothing but the best in my attainment of an education!

The subjunctive mood, like much of the English language, has almost been butchered into non-existence. It is used in statements where the mood of the verb is speculative.
Mood of the verb? What’s that mean? In this case, the way a verb is used when applied to hypothetical statements, as in the Lion’s recitative:
“If I … were king … of the forrrreeessst,
not prince … not duke … not earl.”  
And most importantly – not was.
According to traditional thought, the subjunctive verb, “were,” is always applied when discussing statements on the conditional future, although it’s much more common to find the (non-standard) use of “was.”
But just because everybody’s doing it doesn’t make it right (yet another quote and lesson I learned from my parents around the same time).
  • “If I were king…” not, “If I was king.”
  • “If she were really a model,” not, “If she was really a model” (she’d get a date!)
  • “If wishes were horses (poor men would ride).”
The other pronouns, “you,” “he,” “she,” and “it” follow suit and use “were.” “We” and “they” definitely use “were,” as they are plural and “was” would be non-standard.

If I were you and was facing this dilemma (notice the two different, correct uses of the verb), I’d simply remember the song Bert Lahr taught us. 
The Big Cat had it right. 
What is a grammatical road block that you’ve faced, and what specific instance can you remember that finally taught the lesson? What tricks do you use to figure out quandaries like this? Where were you when Kennedy was assassinated? Bacon and eggs or pancakes? 

Photo credits: Eyeliam and Jeff Sandquist, Creative Commons


32 thoughts on “How The Cowardly Lion Taught Me Grammar

  1. I loved the story and getting lost in your memory. I could picture it all clearly. Oh the days when watching a special movie on TV was a really big deal. Good grammar lesson to remember too- a rule I probably hack all the time.

  2. Your story took me back to my own childhood. I could never get away with anything and my mum always knew if I was doing something I shouldn't.Re grammar, if enough people go with the incorrect useage for long enough, it becomes correct 😉

  3. Apple sauce–cracks me up every time!I'm so grateful for the internet, it answers all my pesky grammar problems (I think Grammar Girl is helping to raise my children, only today they had to check the lay, laid, lie variations). And what the heck is this pancakes OR bacon and eggs? Come on, pile them all on and pass the maple syrup!

  4. Yes…schedules used to be planned around what was on TV, since we didn't have that, "I'll catch it later on another cable channel or tape" attitude. Otherwise, I'd have probably gone to bed, no problem.But from that night on, I distinctly remember questioning that "If I were," rule, checked into it (as a seven year old), and use the song as a reminder.

  5. Al – good to see you again!I say, "Sing a song with correct grammar and the kids will learn CORRECT grammar!" Songs are how we learned our ABC's isn't it? But now we have so much slang polluting our environment and airwaves.

  6. Tammy – it's always nice when you visit. You bring up an interesting point. Slang is a roadblock, especially when one is under the impression that it's grammatically correct. "Conversating" – born out of ignorance – but people say it all the time (one of my pet peeves, and there are MANY).The thing is, we should first learn the correct way, and then veer off from there, adding our own style. People aren't learning the correct way first.Dare we write the way we talk? Only if it's done properly. If there were no foundation – no uniform way of speaking and communicating – then after awhile, no one would understand each other. We'd eventually break into little sects of language.I'm a firm advocate of dialect and non-standard uses in language. I've written many a story using slang. Notice in this post I wrote, "dinner'll" and "there'll?" But I wrote it where it belonged – in my mom's dialogue, because that's how she always said it.If the story is being told by a narrator who is uneducated and ignorant to grammar rules, then yes, write the narrative in slang. But it better be done well, with definitions explained in the context, without it seeming that you're defining them. And spelling. Has to be spot-on (even if incorrect), so the reader breezes freely through without struggling with pronunciation.If the author writes how he speaks (which may be incorrect), but it doesn't fit the character, then he comes across as a hack writer.Know it first. Tweak it later. I make up words all the time…based on correct roots of them.

  7. Pancakes, please. ;)Fiddler on the Roof has the same lesson in his song, "If I were a rich man." Every so often I run across a sentence that's perhaps hypothetical but also plausible and I'm stumped. Then I'll use "was" mostly because that's what people are used to seeing.

  8. Then you had a good mum. :o)Yes, that's the whole foundation of language, isn't it? Enough people saying/writing something until it becomes a legitimate word? Don't get me started on "supposeably."

  9. Charmaine, I love it when I see your face over here! Grammar girl is an excellent site. Do you homeschool? I can't remember.You sound like you would be a big fan of "Denny's Grand Slam Breakfast." I got hooked on them (eggs, bacon, pancakes, hashbrowns, grits) out in California when they were cheap. $1.99. Now, it's too much of a treat!

  10. Diddle deedle deidle dum. I almost threw that Fiddler Youtube vid into the article at the end for non-fans of the Wizard, but it had gotten to be a mile long already!That's why I bolded always. Were is always used in the speculative, whether it's plausible or not. Is it a hypothetical thought? Then use were.Thanks for coming by! Here are your pancakes! :o)

  11. Hey! What's wrong with cabbage and brussel sprouts?Great grammar lesson. Should I be looking over my shoulder? :PI wasn't born yet.Bacon and pancakes…and REAL maple syrup–not the fake stuff. 🙂

  12. I loved the story! I didn't want it to end. What happened to your brother? And what's wrong with brussel sprouts, huh? This story reminded me of a time my mom made boiled green bananas with butter and brown sugar. I hated them so much I tossed it to the dog. My mom busted me, put an even bigger banana on my plate and told me I wouldn't get anything else to eat until I ate the banana. She didn't lie. Three days that banana stared at me from my plate, morning, noon and night. Nothing else. I never could bring myself to eat it. She finally tossed it, grounded me from watching The Wonderful World of Disney, and I went back to eating regular food. I always said if I were queen of my household, I would never feed my subjects boiled green bananas with butter and brown sugar. I have never gone back on that rule. EVER.

  13. I don't mind either, now, as long as it's prepared well! I made the sprouts roasted with pancetta and it was delicious.Ha! The Grammar Police are not in any danger, no fear!I don't do the fake stuff. Only real stuff here. God made natural just fine by me.

  14. Funny, Rebecca! How's the Ninja Librarian today? I've been meaning to come by. Will do in a little bit.Many people think it's wrong to say, "If I were…" My sister was taking an English class and had to write a review on something. I happened to be in a production of a play. So she asked me, her writer brother, to write a review.I wrote "…blah, blah, as if I were floating away…blah, blah." She changed it to "if I was…!" And the professor didn't catch it, or at the very least, didn't note it.So who's to blame, when the teachers aren't even aware?

  15. The brother still tries to knock my block off!What a wonderful comment, Jenny! I'm going to tweet you to that effect, too. I love discussion. Sorry it took me a day to get to you. I read it in email last night but was so tuckered, I went to bed. Today's been hectic.Yes, that was the day when grounding was a bit more effective. With three channels, a special only aired once a year. Getting sent to bed early without being able to watch Part Two of The Brady Bunch Goes to Hawaii was TORTURE! Did Greg get bitten by the tarantula? Drown after the surfboard hits him? Why doesn't he just take off the freaking idol necklace and leave it in the prop room for a future Indiana Jones movie?

  16. You know what word I saw today in a manuscript I am beta reading for? Stupider. AGGGGHHHHH!!! I wanted to rip my hair out. I wrote in big letters NOOOOOO!!! What is this slaying of the English language? Who EVER said it was okay to say 'stupider'? No. Just no. 🙂

  17. LOL, your response cracked me up. I was never a big Brady Bunch watcher, but the Partridge Family and Family Affair???? David Cassidy was my heart throb and who didn't like Mr. French? 🙂

  18. All of those! We had four kids with only 2 years 3 months from oldest to youngest. A military dad who was overseas a lot. TV was my mom's babysitter. I loved all those shows. I'm a twin, so Jody and Buffy were like my sister and I. We were about the same age as the actors…and just as cute. :o)

  19. Wonderful story! I love when your dad's eyes leave the paper and travel across the carpet. Hilarious. And also his responses after that. Double Hilarious. You are a gifted storyteller. I love how you bring the reader into the story as if we are flies on the wall watching the whole thing take place. Also thanks for the grammar lesson. You are so correct that grammar is best learned when it's connected to a song. I learned my conjunctions from Saturday Morning School House Rock. Remember "Conjunction Junction what's your function" song, and "I'm just a Bill Sitting on Capitol Hill." Anyhoo, thanks to you I've learned something new. I'm so going to associate the cowardly lion song to the hypothetical statement usage of the verb "were." I always butcher that one and use "was" instead. Thanks for enlightening me. Love when I'm enlightened.

  20. Hey Lolly – get your adverbs here. I have to see if that collection is out there. I loved those shows. We had some great TV. Now it's a 5000 channels of junk.Honestly, this post started off as a short introduction to Wizard of Oz night and I just kept writing and writing and writing. I didn't think I'd ever shut up.I guess it's a little piece of creative non-fiction. I may end up putting it through a revision and posting it in my short stories tab. It's in need of some stories. I'm protective about my short stories because many have competition potential. I don't like to put anything in there unless it's already been published or I have no competition or publication plans for it. Like this story. So I think I'll clean it up and revise it. Thanks for your kind words.And I'm glad to have enlightened you with some new knowledge. Now I have to go leave a comment to a friend of mine who just committed this sin. AFTER reading my post. :o) It's a hard lesson to sink in, thus the song.

  21. Another fellow grammar nerd. Pound it bro! Not many of us around. Thanks for the review about the subjunctive mood. I needed that. Extra points for the Wizard of Oz and Rock'em Sock'em Robots usage. As a teacher, I'm exposed to epidemic levels of grammar foibles and mistakes, and I think I'm building up a resistance. Or I'm getting old. The one that stands out – "Mr. Schwartz, can me and Ashley work together?" These two words still make me hack up a hairball – "firstly" and "irregardlesss."Very enjoyable reading Mike. If I was you, I'd try to get this published.

  22. Firstly, yes – I'm a grammar nerd. If you're a little kid who's around me, and you ask if you can go to the bathroom, I'm the one who always intervenes with the correction, "MAY I go to the bathroom." (But I don't say, "I don't know, can you?" I always hated when adults would do that).Irregardless, I plan to write about my pet peeves like this, and there are many.Me put this short in my stories tab – it's a shitty first draft of creative non-fiction – but me might send it through a revision or two to clean it up. It was just a different way to introduce the lesson…nothing me was really planning. :o)


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