Am I Blogging Now?

A blog about writing, reading, art, and history

Archive for the category “Language”

*My* Grammar Rant

A friend posted something from Grammarly’s page on Facebook that really set me off for some reason. It was a picture that read “Please do not say ‘supposably’ when you mean ‘supposedly.'” I mean, really? How pedantic can you get? I’ve never seen anyone write it that way, so clearly Grammarly is trashing on someone’s pronunciation. Obviously, they know what the person means when they say it, so why make them feel like crap over it? I want to have a measure of respect for outfits like Grammarly—for the sake of clarity and professionalism, I think it’s important to have a strong understanding of grammar and how it can work to your advantage or disadvantage. But I hate it when these self-appointed “grammar experts” get uptight about trivialities. I’ve yet to see how they are helping the situation by being anal retentive about someone else’s pronunciation. In fact, I find it to be counter-productive, as it tends to turn people off toward grammar and usage.

I find it kind of sad, really. But it’s not unlike those people who balk about how signs in stores should read “10 items or fewer” instead of “10 items or less.” Sure, I know the technical distinction: when modifying a noun phrase that can have a number attached, use fewer, when modifying a noun phrase that can’t have a number attached, use less. But clearly the reader can understand what the sign means, so why bother even pointing it out?

As a system, grammar and language is entirely arbitrary and abstract. Verily, the only part of any language (except Sign Language) that is not abstract is onomatopoeia. When using a sound to represent an object, or a color, or an idea, or an action, it has to be abstract. (That’s one of the neat things about Sign Languages is that they are able to symbolically represent things like objects and actions.) And outside of hieroglyphics, written language is completely abstract.

Part of me always wants to rebelliously fight back against such grammatical pedantry by deliberately splitting infinitives or finding prepositions to end sentences with. There’s something satisfying about making grammar snobs twitch.

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Writing Talking

I tend to recall creative writing courses being less helpful than I’d have liked them to be. I took two of them as an undergraduate: an intro-level and an advanced. I liked the teacher for the advanced course well enough, but the prof for the intro class had kind of an east-coast liberal mentality that irked my Idaho farm-kid upbringing. The classes focused on ‘literary’ fiction. Within the first few weeks I determined ‘literary’ means ‘dry and depressing.’ I also found it to be kind of a hypocritical genre of writing in that writers who think of themselves as ‘literary’ tend to look down their noses at other genres of writing as being conventional and formulaic, when literary fiction has its own set of conventions and formulas.

I felt out of my element in both classes for various reasons, and the dry subject matter did nothing to help my mood. Very little of what was written in either class was uplifting by any measure. A couple stories featured murders. A couple more featured suicides. And one featured a murder/suicide. And that’s just the students’ stories, don’t get me started about the assigned readings. I learned also that creative writing students tend to view each other as potential competition, and thus get very defensive about their writing and offensive toward others’. (Writers can be an insecure lot. Me included.) This isn’t to say that I learned nothing from my classmates. There were several very talented writers in those classes, but I learned far more from their example than from their advice.

I think the best example of things that wrecked my respect for modern literary conventions was their opposition to using dialect in narration and character dialogue. Dialect is awesome. I love both reading and writing it. It gives a regional feel to the story, whether it’s being used by the narrator to establish scene or by characters to establish background. I did a simple experiment with dialect in a pseudo-medieval story for the intro class, trying to give a rural family of characters a rustic feel by replacing my with me and you and your with ye. The story included lines like ‘May I check ye bandages?’ and ‘Me father wishes to speak with ye.’ Apparently, that’s where I went wrong. My classmates trashed on it, indicating that it was distracting and made the family inconsistent with the other characters. One smug literature major dismissed it as cliche and infantile. The teacher said it was ‘over the top’–that it was different enough from the rest of the writing to distract readers from the story.

I was wise enough not to use dialect in the advanced class, but one of my classmates did, to a similar response. His story featured a Chinese immigrant who was still trying to master the conglomerative mess that is the English language. He went all-out with the dialect, using wery for very and swapping pronunciation of the ls and rs in the words. It was freaking awesome–some of the best use of dialect I’ve seen since Mark Twain’s “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” I loved it, and said so in my response. I got some strange looks from the other critiquers when I said that it was great and that I enjoy reading stories written in dialect. They trashed on it, much like my classmates from the intro course did with my dialectical experiment. What they dismissed as ‘distracting,’ ‘stereotypical,’ and ‘bordering on ethnocentric’ really brought the character to life for me. It made him relatable, so that I sympathized not only with his struggles in the story, but his struggles with the English language as well.

I’m still scratching my head as to why use of dialect is considered ‘nonliterary.’ As a genre that prides itself on realism and descriptivism, wouldn’t literary fiction writers want their characters to sound like they’re from particular parts of the world? Sure, I’ve read bad dialect on occasion–Clarence Mulford is the first that comes to mind, and his isn’t badly written so much as painfully cliche. But there’ve been many famous writers of the literary canon who write beautiful and believable dialect, but for whatever reason, many modern literary writers who try to employ it get criticized for it’s use. I have to wonder if it’s one of those things where one famous writer or self-proclaimed expert said it should be avoided, and suddenly all writers who can’t think for themselves eliminate their use of it altogether. Kind of like when Strunk and White said to avoid using passive voice, or when Stephen King said ‘adverbs are not your friend’ and their mindless followers start going out of their way not use passive voice and adverbs.

Writers can be such conformists sometimes. Emerson would be ashamed.

Anyway, all this reminds me of a joke. How to talk like a hillbilly:
Hillbilly 1: M R ducks.
Hillbilly 2: M R not ducks.
Hillbilly 1: M R 2 ducks.
Hillbilly 2: naw, M R not ducks.
Hillbilly 1: S A R 2 ducks. C M wangs?
Hillbilly 2: L I B, M R ducks.

A Few Random Thoughts About Grammar

GRAMMAR, n. A system of pitfalls thoughtfully prepared for the feet for the self-made [writer], along the path by which he advances to distinction. –Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

This is going to sound like blasphemy to some, but I have no issue with using ‘they’ as a gender-undefined singular pronoun. ‘They’ has been used as gender-neutral singular for hundreds of years–it’s only by early twentieth-century convention that this has changed. At some point around the turn of the century, the uptight, sexist, and often ethnocentric grammar experts who make these decisions decided that since ‘they’ and ‘their’ can refer to a group, we should quit using these as singular pronouns and start using ‘he’ and ‘his’ whenever the gender of the subject is unknown. Toward the middle of the century the feminist movement took offense to the use of ‘he’ and ‘his’, since the subject could very well be a woman. Rather than going back to using ‘they’ and ‘their’, however, the feminists muddied the waters further by insisting on clumsy constructions like he/she, s/he, and his/her.*

Ain’t grammar history neat?

Ain’t is another very good example of a muddied grammar rule. Most have heard the rule ‘ain’t ain’t a word,’ right? Ain’t has been used for over three hundred years and can be found often throughout Georgian, Victorian, and early-American literature. The issue is that it was considered informal by those who considered themselves of the social elite. Grammar rules are kind of like table manners in that many of them are arbitrarily dictated by the upper classes in order to distinguish themselves from the lower classes (or in this case, probably the Irish). It’s kind of like a secret club handshake–if you use the same fork to eat your salad as you do your steak or end your sentence with a preposition, you clearly don’t belong (we don’t need your kind here).

Over the last century, however, we’ve seen a surge in a class of grammarian commonly referred to as the grammar-Nazi. Many of whom seem to take a certain amount of pride in the Nazi association. This bugs me because it turns grammar knowledge into a weapon, thus making grammar discussions combative, rather than informative.** To me, this is entirely the wrong attitude to take, and I feel like it turns many people off to the joys of writing and grammar. From my experiences as a teacher and tutor of composition, I’d estimate that more than 90% of students who struggle with grammar struggle simply because they are intimidated by it–because someone, at some point, has treated them as an inferior because they struggled with a hard-to-remember, arbitrary usage rule.

I’ll leave off with a few thoughts from the indomitable Stephen Fry, who says it a lot better than I ever could, and sounds cooler doing it:

*In a recent internet discussion on the use of ‘they’ as a singular pronoun, a user named Zillatian had this to say: “As for ‘they’, I use it all the time. Otherwise I would be using she/he/it all the time instead. Abbreviated of course to s/h/it.”

**Plus, it creates a negative stereotype of those of us who do like to write and play with language.  I can’t begin to guess the number of times someone has replied “Oh, I guess I better watch my grammar” when I tell them I’m an English major.

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