Monday, November 8, 2010

Grammarians, Skedaddle

I have a serious problem with grammarians. I mean, they always bugged me a little in school, but now that I'm doing a master's it seems like the grammarians should have shuffled off by now to torture high school students or edit online magazines or whatever they're good at. See that's the thing. I think grammarians are the way they are because they're not great at having ideas or writing elegantly or anything interesting. So they correct the rest of us. And yes, their grammar-bolstered confidence is so great, they even correct the authors.

Don't get me wrong, I observe most grammar rules (and I do think most high school English teachers are better than just plain grammarians). But I think that some grammatical conventions are too rigid to allow for creative use of this gorgeous language we're lucky enough to have. It's English for God's sake! It can do the awesomest things if you only let it breathe. In one of my classes I sit through weekly humiliation (oops, I misidentified an expletive...) and discomfort (is that an absolute construction? ...I don't think I'll raise my hand). I'm not targeted or anything, and I don't try to take people on, but it is a generally hostile environment for me. I will provide some examples lest you think my complaints are vague or simply based on some kind of grammar envy.

The Sloppy Proofreader
We looked at an overhead of a letter written by a woman author. She typed a quotation mark before the period when she mentioned the title of a short story. The professor thought this a good time to remind us that quotation marks go after the period, and to show his disdain for this highly respected author's cavalier punctuation. The grammarians grumbled along with him. "That's why she has editors." The letter was typed on a type-writer, so whether the writer made an honest typo or had an orthographic brain fart, she was probably not going to go back and fix it. Yes, that's why she has editors. But it's also not most people's main concern to police their quotation marks when writing freely. We proofread things that lots of people will read, like papers for classes. We might even proof our emails. But most of us don't think of ourselves or our friends as failed writers because of a typo. The rogue quotation mark might have warranted a preventative aside in a freshman writing class, but not two whole minutes of grad student tsk-tsk-ing. (That's not a word! Take that!)

The Permissive Editor
When we got down to the analysis of some prose by the same author, we looked at some sentences containing extremely long and winding interrupters. I like interrupted sentences -- dashes, parentheses, whatever have you -- but some of these had double, triple, confusing interruptions. They sure were great though. But what did the grammarians have to say? "I can't believe her editor let her get away with that!" When told that some of this prose had been printed in magazines, they asked why it wasn't "fixed," why no one "stopped her." Maybe because the editor recognized great writing, even where the occasional verb was separated from its direct object by a parenthetical. (Who cares?! It's all so fucking arbitrary.)

The Sentence You Would Never Write
The first directive in this class is to look for "the sentence you would never write." This is supposed to help us find unique stylistic features. While it may sometimes be an efficient way to do just that, it is presumptuous to assume you have a class full of writers who never successfully deviate from grammatical norms. "Look for the sentence with bad grammar" is the message behind this. And since we all love our grammar, we should be able to identify the sentence straight away. What does it say for our precious stupid grammar if every writer we are studying uses egregiously "flawed" sentence structures? Even if we allow for the flaws because the writers show some sort of genius, a method to their grammatical madness, why assume we would never want to write a sentence like theirs? Should we resign ourselves to mediocrity in prose because that's all that proper grammar allows for? Instead, I think we should be looking for "the sentence you would love to write." Or in the case of the grammarians, "the sentence you would love to write, but can't, so you complain about it."

In Conclusion
I hope there are less grammarians at my next stop on the road to an advanced degree in English. If the GRE subject test in literature is any indicator, we should be more worried about learning our Greek mythology and modern poetry than correcting people's inspired use of English. I don't recall a grammar quiz on that particular test. While I recognize that teaching writing is something we will all do (and do constantly), grammar is just one small part of that. To think of teaching writing as teaching grammar or to think of studying style as studying grammar are incredibly reductive approaches. More on style reduction to come, once the semester has ended.

1 comment:

  1. Quotation marks can go before the full stop in British English, which proves how arbitrary that rule is.

    I agree completely about non-standard grammar, I'm lucky that during my master's we never did anything like this. And when I'm marking my first year undergrad's essays next week, I hope I won't be a jerk.


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