Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Refresh My Memory: I Like Grammar WHY?

Sometimes, to get focused in the morning, I do a Google news search for the word “grammar.” I like to see* what people and publications are saying on the subject -- make sure I’m abreast of any grammar-related news, stuff like that.

Then I pick up my coffee cup and bonk myself on the head with it.

It’s always the same thing: Some columnist in Polukaville has written a column about how readers shredded her for using “their” to refer to a singular. Invariably, the columnist concludes that there are a lot of people out there who like to play gotcha (who knew?). Then some clown posts a comment ranting about how the New York Times (gasp) split an infinitive and another clown bemoans the widespread horror of people using “healthy” to mean “healthful.”

(None of these linguistic crimes is actually a crime, by the way. Split infinitives, if there exist such things, are fine. “Healthy” now means “healthful” and the use of “their” to refer to a singular is defended by some of the nation’s top language authorities.)

And then I remember why so many people hate grammar: Because the people who claim to love it give it a bad name.

To me, grammar is more about understanding phrase and clause structure and using that understanding to write the most effective sentences possible. But not today. Today it’s about a never-ending bumble dance between anti-split-infinitive thugs and dazed columnists who never saw ’em coming.

So today, instead of writing my column or some other grammar-related project, I’m going to work on my novel. To give you an idea of how dedicated I am to my fiction writing, here’s a picture of the space in my home set up specifically for fiction writing. To encourage me to write more fiction. (Note that the only evidence of life is of feline life -- cat hair on the tree thing).


And here’s where I usually write my columns and other grammar stuff. (Note the actual signs of human life.)



Wish me luck.

* If you want to try this grammar search at home, kids, do an “advanced” search and specify that you want hits only from the United States. Otherwise, you’ll have to sift through hundreds of hits from news sources in countries where they actually teach grammar.

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12 comments:

Joel said...

I'm so excited to hear that you're working on a novel.

With reference to signs of life--absent and otherwise--I heartily recommend Steven Pressfield's, The War of Art, in case you've never heard of it. Indeed, even if you have heard of it, I still recommend it. I'm blessed to know lots of creative folks (and sometimes try to be one myself) and, to the best of my recollection, every one of them has benefited from this beautiful kicking in the teeth of the forces that oppose us. It is a very quick read but surprisingly powerful and rich (hmmm, both in their essential and salutary, not materialist, senses). I'm working through --taking time to dig in and discuss--it with a group of friends right now.

BTW, the split infinitive is one of my dearest friends--so bless you for giving it well-deserved props (or at least acceptance). We hang out less because of the snobs. I'd happily flog them for discouraging it. I'm a little bitter, in fact, and have the same feelings towards these infinitive-hating snobs as towards the supposed "purists" whose advice I sadly accepted (at least more than I should have) in steering away from the jump hook and the fade-away jumper (indeed, the fade-away jump hook) and other diminished joys of my exuberant youth.

Ergo, I am an impassioned advocate for exuberance, for freedom, for grace, for all those other--hey, here's a tie-in--signs of life, no matter how messy they might sometimes get. And I find myself less and less tolerant of oppression and constriction and censorship in all of its nasty, petty forms--which, come to think of it, aren't so varied; it just shows up a lot in lotsa places.

I tell ya, it's the same all over: the grammar snobs, the political reactionaries and totalitarians, the religious pharisees, the cultural prudes, etc. ad nauseam. And this, I think, is why I got so worked up last week about all of that History stuff. It's just one more front. We must win. We will win. I just want to be there, my boot in the face of oppression, when Victory comes.


If need be, we can deal with the snobs without you, and, though we would miss you, we can even survive any necessary absence here.

Go forth and kick Resistance's ass.

June Casagrande said...

I would LOVE to kick Resistance's ass. So far, though, the most fire power I can muster is more like spitballs. But I'm working on it.

I think the War of Art might be in my house, I know at least one or two Pressfield books are (they're my husband's), including Chariots of Fire or Gates of Fire or Fire Island or whatever that famous one is.

Fun fact: We have the same accountant as Steven Pressfield (though I suspect that he's tapping out much bigger numbers on his adding machine for Pressfield than for us).

Re exuberance: I agree that many of these things (Resistance) spring from the same icky impulse. And it's not a good thing. Like institutionalized control freakin'. Very weird.

Re the novel: Excitement is probably not the best response. Fiction is not where my writing strength lies. And if this one goes thud, it wouldn't be the first steamer to land in my "What was I thinking" drawer of embarrassing failures.

Blackwell said...

I love your point about being fascinated by grammar and not getting stuck up in being crazy anal-retentive about it!

Coincidentally, David Malki ! posted a comic along those lines: http://wondermark.com/d/434.html

But I am totally guilty. I mangle English on my own (I told a student to do it "more weller" today!) but appreciate clear sentences, and of course play with it on purpose, too.

June Casagrande said...

Hmmm. What is it about "more weller" that I absolutely love?

If I ever get good at writing fiction, don't be surprised to see a character named Moore Weller.

Hmmm ...

: )

Debbie Diesen said...

Grammar has great significance to two groups of people: 1) People who love language and communication; and 2) People who love rules and regulations.

While some folks can claim membership in both groups, for the most part, I think the groups are very distinct.

There's nothing wrong with either group, but I find the word-lovers a more interesting and compelling bunch than the rules & regs bunch.

Your novel awaits you. Remember: only you can write the story that only you can write.

And I for one look forward to reading it!

June Casagrande said...

Wow. I never heard it put in a way that makes it so crystal clear before.

I've been saying and hearing stuff along these lines for years -- including observations about what seems to be a political partisan divide in language (Republicans seeming to lean prescriptivist with Dems, etc., seeming to lean descriptivist). But I never found words that nailed it like this.

Joel said...

Hmmm, Debbie, I like what you're saying and do indeed tend to be in the one group and, yeah, suspect that most of us appear to mostly fit in one or the other, but I just can't agree that they're mutually exclusive, even "for the most part."

Indeed, no disrespect intended, but I think that bifurcation--like our two-party system and our many other binary modes of thinking--is exactly the problem. Er, or it's part of the problem. The other part is just the general tendency to the wrong kind of absolutes.

I like to say that there are two types of people in the world: those who split the world into two types of people and those who don't; I'm the latter.

Debbie Diesen said...

Joel, good point about the bifurcation. You're right that we don't need Yet Another Way To Split People Into Two Camps.

Maybe what would be a better statement would be for me to say that grammar has two main attractions: 1) for its usefulness in making communication more effective; and 2) for its (perceived) orderliness. For most of us, one of those tugs at us more than the other.

Most writers and word lovers are pulled at more by 1); and most of the, to borrow June's wonderful phrase, "anti-split-infinitive thugs," are pulled at by 2); but I suppose we're probably all more of a mix of both than we realize or admit to.

Blackwell said...

Well, I believe I am fairly soundly in both camps. As a high school English teacher, I am continually frustrated by how hard it is to teach analysis, in all its many forms. Grammar, to me, is the part where I get to teach math (the subject I would teach if I were any good at it): There are rules. There is logic. I like that there's (usually, at least at the HS level) a correct answer. That "correct" answer ultimately leads to expressing oneself clearly, too.

Then I get to teach them how to bend the rules!

By the way, I was reading a novel the other day and was much dismayed by a comma-splice, because I felt it didn't connect the ideas as beautifully as a semicolon would have. I still like them, no matter what others say.

June Casagrande said...

Yeah. I love the mathiness of grammar

Y-1(4)
is very different from
Y-4(1)

just as

"Antique desk with thick legs and large drawers suitable for lady"

is very different from

"Antique desk suitable for lady with thick legs and large drawers."

On the other hand, my hatred for the semicolon grows with every passing day. Yeah, it's better than a comma splice. But to me it's almost never as good as just staring a new sentence.

June Casagrande said...

Hmmm. Did I flake that up?

I meant (in English):

"Y minus one times four"

and

"Y times four minus one"

Joel said...

I'm sure I misuse the semicolon but am still drawn to it like a moth to a flame. It's just too beautiful to not use.

As to grammar's mathiness, all the more I will say at this time is "amen."

On that further point of bending the rules, instead of one of my typically long comments, here's a link to a post y'all have helped inspire: A Shifty Universe, Truth that Sometimes Lies.

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