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My drug of choice is writing--writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Thursday, January 17, 2013

My Stance on Grammar


She's so unsupportive, I had to use a generic picture
of an angry woman who isn't even her!
[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer them each Thursday as long as I have enough to do.  I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox.]   

(I’m paraphrasing an in-person question that I was given permission to write about.)  Alex asks:

I'm a little confused about your stance on grammar. Do you care hugely about grammar or not? You will go on these huge, beautiful rants about what assholes prescriptivists can be (and I agree), but then you turn around and insist it is vital to learn grammar, post grammar jokes, and seem to be very worried if you make a grammar mistake in a post. Which is it?

My reply:

[Grammar in this conversation was not referring exclusively structure, but anything from the meaning of words to paragraph construction that could be considered the more technical, "rulesy" side of writing. ]

My initial answer to this would be "all of the above," but don't worry.  I won't leave you hanging like a zebra who walked into the hyena convention at the Marriott.

As with many complex situations, Alex, the key is context. Are these people laughing at a grammar joke that creates an amusing word play in a comic or are they laughing at someone else's expense? Are they correcting like a benevolent teacher might help someone not make an embarrassing mistake, or are they smearing their faces in it? Are they engaged in a linguistic purism that echoes cultural ethnocentricity and even racism and corrective behavior much like telling people how they ought to be moral? Are they correcting someone gently because they want to help, or are they doing it to show those people up?

Are they aware that different style guides have different rules and that sometimes different grammar is equally correct, or are they just being an asshole about how they learned it in high school? Are they taking ownership for the fact that a "pet peeve" bothers them far far more than it really should or are they behaving as if they are perfectly justified in acting more offended by the misuse of "less" with a count noun than by genocide in Syria?  Or like double spacing after a sentence is a crime against humanity? Are they grousing quietly about the "misuse" of the less perfect or are they writing self-righteous web content. And if they are writing self-righteous web content, is it a funny comic about the Alot animal or is it a baleful nastygram that compares a extraneous apostrophe to the collapse of civilization and the invasion of the mentally defunct? Are they

Is "being right" more important to them than communication? (For it is quite simple to muddy communication by being too strict, formal, or intractable about linguistic drift.) Are they acting like the word police? Are they being haughty and snotty about a word that has shifted its meaning in common usage because they know what it "really means"? Are they treating someone if they are stupid or ignorant to use "irregardless" or "PIN number," someone who may have simply heard a word used around them so much that it's very difficult for them not to assimilate it, rather than understanding how easily lexicon is transmitted given the constructions of our brains? (I got the whole house saying "totes" this week--it doesn't mean they're stupid--that's just how language works.) Are they equating a single standard grammar (for which they are always the judge) as the yardstick for intelligence despite the presence of incredibly smart and educated people who speak and write differently for reason from dialect to being a second language speaker? Have they decided that since the U.S. does not have a formal language academy to judge what is right or wrong that they have the authority and qualifications to be the sole arbiter of the job?

Are they holding people's informal usage to the rigor of formal academia instead of acknowledging that code switching actually makes for better communication than enforcing a single standard? Are they derailing someone's story to tell them they used the wrong meaning of "moot" or to point out that they used "disinterested" incorrectly not because it wasn't a good story but because they wanted the spotlight on THEM and how fucking brilliant they were to know that? Has stringing phonemes together to convey meaning become to them something that can be "right" and "wrong" and moreover timeless like a math equation, rather than a changing, evolving elastic thing more like culture. Are they really correcting a Facebook status to help a person communicate better or to make themselves look good (and if so, why didn't they just message the person privately)? Was that sentence they condescendingly corrected really unclear, or was it perfectly clear, but they simply appointed themselves the guardian of language? Are they doing the linguistic version of "Well, actually..."

Are they aware that a formal study of linguistics almost universally results in a far more liberal understanding of grammar, context, and language and that their pedantry actually reveals a semi-educated state not unlike someone who can quote and recite Kierkegaard, Augustine, and Hume but doesn't really understand them?

Because, as complex as the rationalizations for this behavior can become, it is almost always laughably easy to determine when someone is using language pedantry to be an elitist douchecanoe. The justifications for this behavior are so transparent and so disingenuous compared to the way the sentiment lands that there is almost no doubt what motivates these people to speak out. They are not unlike Christians who just "had to tell those people they were going to hell." The difference between someone truly delighted by an unorthodox use of language, genuinely confused by a turn of phrase, gently informing someone of something they might not know, or trying honestly trying to help someone avoid embarrassment, and the near giddy correction of a haughty pedant at the sight of a mistake they get to point out is SO apparent as to make any attempt at those rationalizations almost insulting.

However...as a writer, I have to hold myself to a higher standard. I just have to.

Writers simply have to learn some grammar if they want to be taken seriously as writers. I have met a distressingly large number of writers who think that grammar will not be important--many of them like to "latch on" to the the arguments about how hoity toity grammar wanks can be (and they can) as an excuse not to learn it. They think their mistakes are no big deal or (worse) that their ideas are so fucking brilliant that publishers will fling editors at them by the truckload. These writers are in for a difficult road of reality shaped hand prints on their cheeks from the incessant bitch slapping life will be giving them.

Trust me. I know. I have a few "Learn to write, kid," rejection letters to prove it.

A writer deals in language. Grammar is "hella" important to being as clear and precise as possible. It might be an ass move to correct someone who just used the phrase "very unique" on the street, but a writer has to know why that's a problem. If they don't understand how grammar helps meaning, their relationship with language is flawed...and they probably aren't actually a wonderful writer. Sure, it is actually is possible for grammar to obscure meaning and books really don't sell these days if their prose reads like Victorian lit, but a writer still has to know how and when to bend rules and break them and which ones are bendable and which are intractable, and that means knowing what those rules are. A writer has to know that certain grammar errors can totally change the meaning of a sentence from what was intended (they're called "global" errors) and a writer will never know what those are or how to avoid them if they think they're too good to spend some time brushing up.

Gertrude Stein, ee Cummings, even Virginia Woolf in Room With a View all had unconventional grammar that added to their writing, but if anyone thinks for a second that they didn't KNOW the rules they were breaking and EXACTLY what the effect would be, they should read again.

Writers must also be aware that their skills are being judged by their compliance to grammar. Right or wrong, fair or not, enlightened or douchy, it happens. A writer's ability to write is being gauged directly in relation to the number of errors they commit ALL. THE. TIME. No matter how Rage Against the Prescriptive Machine you are, the fact is that every gatekeeper you will probably ever face--be they publishers, agents, editors, or even those reviewers who could make your career with a kind word--they are all judging your ability to write based on grammar. They are almost all writers themselves, with either abandoned or puttering creative careers, who found that their skill set suited them more towards the technical or business end of writing than the creative. They have no problem throwing away a submission that has more than a couple of mistakes early on....without even reading it. In their experience, no one's brilliant idea is ever really that brilliant if they can't be bothered to know enough about writing to use the right their/there/they're. They know all too well that a writer's ability to get an idea from their head into another person's is absolutely dependent on their command of language. They even know that if they do take a messy piece on, editing that manuscript will be like pulling teeth instead of polishing silver, which will cost them time and money.

And also....just so you know....most of them have a Strunk and White shrine in their closets and sleep with a copy under their pillow. So if you have to pick a grammar rule to follow from among a few choices, go with the S&W one.

And that is to say nothing of the legions and legions of readers who conflate grammar with overall writing ability as if there is absolutely no difference in the two skills. The very fact that copyediting is pretty much the only part of the writing process that can be farmed out to another person should belie this, but it doesn't. It would be splendid if we lived in a world where a where grammar was seen as the rather minor aspect of writing that it is. If you open a dimensional portal to that world, let me know, because this sure as hell ain't it.

That is why I try to be conscious of grammar and why I'm embarrassed when I make a big mistake even though, generally, I think it is really snotty and obnoxious and unkind the way people gleefully point and laugh at grammar errors in the same way a bully might point and laugh at someone whose pants just fell down around their ankles or to behave as if one's own high school grammar class was the end all of linguistic complexity.

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