Margaret Wischmeyer Taylor '41

Grammar Guru
Writer: 
June 1, 2004
Margaret Wischmeyer Taylor '41

If you have ever found yourself floundering between "lie" and "lay" or fumbling through a sentence to avoid the wrong choice of "who" or "whom," you can appreciate the magnitude of Margaret Wischmeyer Taylor's mission as a grammarian.

A longtime teacher at Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland, Ohio, where she founded the student newspaper as well as a grammar hotline, Taylor is also the author of The Basic English Handbook, published in 1995 by HarperCollins College Publishers.

The book is a useful guide for anyone who needs to master the English language. It's also a summary of Taylor's work as a teacher--drilling students in the rules of correct and effective English with lively good cheer and, one senses, a twinkle in her eye.

Her ability to bring good humor to the work of mastering the sometimes-arbitrary rules of English may well stem from her early experience of school as play; she spent many hours as the only pupil in her older brother's pretend classroom. His tutelage was effective enough to jumpstart her schooling, allowing her to skip some early grades and finish high school at age sixteen.

The Basic English Handbook

After spending a year at Indiana State University, not far from her home in Terre Haute, Taylor headed to Duke for "three marvelous years," graduating magna cum laude. One of the requirements for her degree was a course in grammar--it was one of her favorites.

After her marriage to Ed Taylor, an engineer, she worked as a newspaper reporter in Dayton, Ohio, and adopted three children before embarking on her teaching career. Teaching allowed her to spend summers at her beloved lakeside cabin in Michigan. It also gave her a chance to make a lasting impression on a couple of generations of students.

"She made a big impact on my life," says Joan Demirjian, a former editor of the college's campus newspaper and now a reporter at a weekly paper in Ohio. "It's amazing how much I use what she taught us. She was a perfectionist, and that has helped me deal with other editors."

Marianne Pescho, another former student editor, remembers Taylor's good humor and drive to tap each person's potential. Other teachers might give up on some of their students. Not Taylor. "It didn't matter where the student was academically, she gave her all," Pescho says.

By the time Taylor retired in 1992, she had won every teaching award the campus had to offer, as well as national recognition for the grammar hotline, where for years she provided callers of all ages with expert advice on grammar. It is now staffed by instructors at the school's writing center, although they don't forward calls to their home after hours as Taylor did.

A series of textbook mergers and acquisitions has left The Basic English Handbook without a publishing home. Taylor says she hopes that is only temporary; the contents are on a disc, ready to spring back into print at a moment's notice.

Meanwhile, at age eighty-three, she spends more time at her Michigan lake house and continues to pay attention to grammar, cringing at the confusion of "it's" for "its" or the use of a nominative pronoun as the object of a preposition in phrases like "between you and I."

"I cringe a lot," she says.