The Compulsive Copyeditor

November 11, 2009

Am I a “Grammar Nazi”? [UPDATED]

Filed under: grammar — amba12 @ 10:12 pm

That’s probably what Mike Masnick at techdirt would call me.  According to Masnick, most people who presume to correct your grammar are motivated by a desire to lord it over you and rub their class and educational superiority in your face.  Masnick at least implies that grammatical correctness, especially when pursued with zeal, is elitist and antidemocratic, and that as long as understanding is adequately transferred (ah!  there’s the rub!), language has done its job:

There are times […] when I feel that the strict “rules” that are put forth by grammar go too far. If the text makes the point in a way that people can understand, what is the problem? […] So I’m glad to see an English professor taking on the grammar nazis.

Salon is running a review of a new book by English professor Jack Lynch, called The Lexicographer’s Dilemma, which argues that grammar nazis should chill out. Grammar rules are mostly to make people feel elite, not to make them any clearer, according to the book. Again, I have no problem with basic grammar rules for the sake of clarity, but focusing too much on the rules over the clarity is a mistake, and it’s nice to see at least some “experts” agreeing.

(To my relief, plenty of people defend grammar in the comments.)

In Salon, Laura Miller, reviewing Lynch, hits even harder on the theme of class warfare:  grammarians artificially Latinized English in the 18th century, because only the upper class learned Latin; later, linguistic Emily Posts served immigrants and arrivistes for whom a veneer of class was the price of admission.  And Miller is with Lynch in affirming the utilitarian standard of comprehensibility, as if once the minimum comprehension mark is hit, any further refinement can only be for the sake of snobbery:

Many of the most roundly deplored “debasements” of English are nevertheless perfectly comprehensible […]  The only truly unbreakable rules of grammar and usage are the ones that, when broken, result in a genuine failure to communicate. The rest is a form of covert class warfare, and today’s usage reproofs constitute a status-protecting thump on the head delivered by the upper middle class to uppity members of the lower middle.

Thinking of the grammar wars in this light helps explain why they provoke such rage. Much as some people might detest seeing the noun “impact” used as a verb, if a lot of people say it and almost everybody understands it when it’s said, then a coup has been effected. The “verbing” of nouns (or the creation of “nerbs”) has been a flashpoint for the past four or five decades with the growth of business management lingo. Complaints about this point to a particularly American social fissure: between the cultured sensibility of the liberally educated and the can-do utilitarianism of striving MBAs.

In other words, practical people — the “silent majority,” the millionaire next door — use language as a tool and care only that it gets the job done.  Effete elites may also use it as a tool, but it’s a heavy-duty carbon steel Smith & Hawken tool with a European ash wood handle “certified by the Forest Stewardship Council” as “sustainably harvested” (S & H just went out of business, by the way).  Good grammar today is a fetish of taste, a flaunted price tag (on one’s Ivy education), an accoutrement out of Bobos in Paradise, like lining your shower with slate.

The trouble is, utility versus quality is a false distinction.  Any tool does its job better if it is well-designed and durable, no matter if it comes from Smith & Hawken or Wal-Mart.  People will tolerate bad grammar and the resultant blurred and blunted comprehension — and even take pride in its proving them the salt of the earth — who wouldn’t use a crappy hammer on a second nail; who have long since insisted on getting Blu-Ray and HDTV for their precision and clarity.  Language, too, is a technology that transmits images, along with ideas, emotions, information, and stories.  Why would you tolerate its being out of focus?  (For example, take Masnick’s “Grammar rules are mostly to make people feel elite, not to make them any clearer.”  He’s only writing a blog post, and we know what he means, so why carp?  BECAUSE I’M A FUCKING GRAMMAR NAZI, THAT’S WHY!  “Not to make them any clearer” is just not very clear.  It requires a bit of extra labor from the reader to be sure that “them” refers to people, not grammar rules, and that it is not really the people, but their expression of their thoughts, that is not being made clearer.  No, indeed it is not.)

It’s telling that Miller’s and Lynch’s examples of snooty grammar rules — don’t split an infinitive, don’t end a sentence with a preposition — have long since been abandoned and even scorned by the professional style manuals.  Chicago Manual of Style:

The traditional caveat of yesteryear against ending sentences with prepositions is, for most writers, an unnecessary and pedantic restriction. As Winston Churchill famously said, “That is the type of arrant pedantry up with which I shall not put.” A sentence that ends in a preposition may sound more natural than a sentence carefully constructed to avoid a final preposition. Compare Those are the guidelines an author should adhere to with Those are the guidelines to which an author should adhere. The “rule” prohibiting terminal prepositions was an ill-founded superstition.

Yes, grammar cops can be obnoxious.  (They’ve even terrorized people into new errors, like the “meophobia” that has led inexorably to “He gave it to Joe and I,” which is to say, “He gave it to I.”)  But it may take some of the sting out to look at us as grammar technicians, perfectionist Mercedes-Benz mechanics keeping the language inspected and tuned up, ensuring that the constant change it undergoes does not degrade, and even enhances, its performance and style.  It’s our shop talk to debate which mistakes matter, which don’t, and which, like the possessive “it’s” — or using “like” for “such as” — will eventually be embraced as improvements.

UPDATE: And maybe “who’s” in place of “whose,” too, as in this comment on Althouse:  “In today’s victim society, politics is all about who’s self-interest gets served.”  It sounds illiterate now, but it is in fact logical.  Apostrophe s signifies the possessive.  It’s even almost an ideograph of the possessive, with the apostrophe standing for the link between owner and owned, like a little hook to hang your pot on.

What will never be smart is sticking apostrophe’s promiscuously wherever you see a final “s”, including on plural’s.

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November 4, 2009

Can Poetry Find New Life Online?

Filed under: Uncategorized — amba12 @ 2:39 pm

That’s the gamble being taken by the multimedia website PoetrySpeaks.com, which launched yesterday — not so much that poetry might be read again in the old way (the words “dustily perused” come unbidden to mind), but that it has untapped appeal for a postliterate, audiovisual, multimedia culture — that people might even pay for a poem in various formats the way they’ll pay for a song.  This strikes me as a very sharp insight:  poetry is music — word music — and it might catch the inner ear of musically imprinted people in a way that unstructured prose does not.  The launch press release describes PoetrySpeaks.com as both “a social network for poets and poetry lovers” and “a new business model for poetry”:

On PoetrySpeaks.com, poets will be able to manage their own information, blog if they wish, explain and display their body of work to their own choosing, and even post their speaking or performance schedules. […] Both interactive and educational, visitors will be able to create their own “favorites,” plus connect to the poets via Twitter and other social networking sites.

PoetrySpeaks.com will also be a business and marketing engine for poets and poetry presses.  There are already three revenue streams, with several others identified and being developed. PoetrySpeaks.com sells individual poems in different formats (audio, video or text), as well as books, ebooks, DVDs and CDs, and tickets to online performances, slams or readings.

That combination of functions makes the site an agora — one of the most ancient human institutions, a place of inseparable social, commercial, and cultural exchange [wish I could use the German word “Geistlich,” which covers both intellectual and spiritual], where performances, transactions, meet-ups, pick-ups and trysts are all going on in the same spacetime.  All our favorite ingredients fermenting together makes for a heady and fertile brew.  I hope the site takes off and helps poetry reclaim its rightful place among the musics that move us.

And in related newsReading poetry is a good workout for your brain.

Subjects were found to read
 poems slowly, concentrating and re-reading individual lines more than they did with 
prose. Preliminary studies using brain-imaging technology also showed greater
 levels of cerebral activity when people listened to poems being read aloud. Dr
Jane Stabler, a literature expert at St Andrews University and a member of the research group, believes poetry 
may stir latent preferences in the brain for rhythm and rhymes that develop
 during childhood. She claims the intense imagery woven through poems, and 
techniques used by poets to unsettle their readers, force them to think more
 carefully about each line. “There seems to be an almost immediate
 recognition that this is a different sort of language that needs to be 
approached in a way that will be more attentive to the density of words in
 poetry,” she said. […]

To study readers’ reactions,
 the research group focused an infrared beam on the pupils of their eyes to
 detect minute movements as they read. They found poetry produced 
all the standard psychological indications associated with intellectual
 difficulty, such as slow deliberate movement, re-reading sections and long
 pauses. Even when they used identical content but displayed it in both a poem
 format and a prose format, they discovered readers found the poem form the more
 difficult to understand. Stabler said: “When readers decide that something
 is a poem, they read in a different way. As literary critics we would like to 
think that this is a more thoughtful way, more receptive to the text’s richness
 and complexity, but in psychological terms it is the same sort of reading
 produced by a dyslexic reader who finds reading difficult.” […]

The group hopes to use
 Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scans to watch how the brain reacts as people 
listen to poetry and prose. Early results suggest a larger area of the brain
 lights up in the scans upon hearing poetry by Byron than prose by Austen. The 
research has profound implications for the way English literature is taught in
 schools, and Stabler believes they should consider placing greater emphasis on 
teaching youngsters poetry.

Both rhythm and rhyme have been found to be
 intricately linked with making and recalling memories.

It’s hard not to have rap come to mind, as a postliterate return to humanity’s preliterate mnemonic reliance on rhyme (as the above article notes, “the only way rap artists can remember all those lyrics
 is because they have rhythm and rhyme”), and as a bridge from music back to pleasure in poetry.

Cross-posted at Ambiance

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