DEAD WRITERS SURE WRITE PRETTY

“No one can learn to write well by rule, especially those who cannot feel or think or see.”—Joseph M. Williams summing up H.L. Mencken’s essay “Literature and the Schoolma’m”

 

Sometimes when I have a grammar, usage, or punctuation problem, I’ll go to Mignon Fogarty’s Grammar Girl or Jane Straus’ GrammarBook.com instead of using The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS), 16th Edition. Grammar Girl and GrammarBook.com base their suggestions on CMOS, and it’s often easier to find what I need on their websites than it is to search through my hardback CMOS. Usually, I find what I need and then get back to what I needed it for. Usually.

A few weeks ago the unusual happen. While searching GrammarBook.com for whatever it was that I wanted to know, I ended up on a post titled “The Future of English?” The post’s heading captured my attention. For one thing, I wasn’t sure if the heading was making a statement or asking a question. “Humm,” I said in my mind, “The Future of English? What’s this about?”

My chronic curiosity made me wonder why a grammar website would be concerned about the future of English instead of its readers’ immediate needs. I have concerns about the future, but how English or any other language changes after I’m dead is not on my list of futuristic concerns. When I’m concerned about the distant future, I might wonder how global warming is going to turn out. My near future concerns can be as trivial as hoping that my Powerball numbers are picked in Saturday’s drawing. The future of English is too obvious for me to be concerned about: people who speak and write English in the future will be speaking and writing however they think they need to, the same as they did in The Past of English. English never has been, and probably never will be, one way fits all.

After spending several seconds pondering the post’s cryptic heading, I read “The Future of English?”  To my surprise, the post was nothing more than criticism of the way novelist Jess Walter uses certain words. It appears that Grammar.com thinks Mr. Walter’s writing will turn future generations into writers who write whatever they feel like writing and publishers who print whatever people want to read. For some odd reason GrammarBook.com thinks that future will be different from the past.

The GrammarBook.com post does not begin by attacking Jess Walter. The post starts off quoting literary critics and fellow novelists who praise Jess Walter’s writing: “The New York Times has called the author Jess Walter ‘ridiculously talented.’  ‘His sentences nearly sing,’ says the Los Angeles Review of Books. ‘One of my favorite young American writers,’ says fellow novelist Nick Hornby.” Then Jane of GrammarBook.com says, “We agree with the critics. Walter’s 2012 best-seller Beautiful Ruins is a masterpiece. But today we’ll do a different kind of book review.”

I’ve never read anything by Jess Walter, but he’s on my “Must Read” list now.

(I have to make an aside here: Jane Straus, founder of Grammar.com, died in 2011. But the website still uses her name on its posts and when replying to readers’ comments. That makes me feel obliged to use Jane’s name, even if the actual writer’s name is Smedley, Edwina, or Android.)

After writing a few positive words, Jane starts nitpicking usage problems she believes make Jess Walter undeserving of the praise he has received—even though she calls his book a “masterpiece.” You can read the post yourself at GrammarBook.com if you need the details of her criticism.

Here are the usage problems that offended Jane:

  • convinced instead of persuaded
  • comprised instead of composed
  • him instead of he
  • snuck instead of sneaked
  • strata instead of stratum
  • close proximity instead of proximity
  • different than instead of different from

After listing Mr. Walter’s literary crimes, Jane says, “So it seems clear that Walter used the phrase because he either did not know or did not care that ‘the experts’ say it’s wrong.”

“The experts.” Give me a break! Because someone has an opinion and academic credentials does not make her or him any more of an “expert” than someone else with the same qualifications and a different opinion. The problem with experts is not that I can’t find any who’ll refute Jane’s snobbish silliness; there are so many experts who disagree with Jane I have a hard time selecting only a few.

I NEED AN EXPERT ON EXPERTS

Experts on English grammar are either prescriptivist or descriptivistAt the risk of over-simplification, descriptive linguists and grammarians believe that what writers write determines English correctness. Prescriptive grammarians believe in definite rules that define what English allows, and any writing violating those strict rules is incorrect. The vast majority of experts on Standard American English are descriptive grammarians or linguists.

Prescriptivists, or fundamentalist grammarians, don’t care about experts; they care only about being correct, despite all the expert evidence opposing their absolute correctness. They exist for the sole purpose of saying “gotcha!” or whatever they say to themselves that’s grammatically correct. Their sad need to feel superior is why they’ll quote as an undisputable expert source H.W. Fowler’s A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, first edition (1926), instead of the more current third edition (1997). Regardless of the edition, Fowler is not the last word on our language.

If you want to entertain yourself with information debunking myths and pseudo-rules about grammar, etymology, or usage, visit Grammarphobia.com. If you want a fascinating and humorous book on the changes in English over the centuries, read Righting the Mother Tongue, by David WolmanFor an expert on how to write Standard American English, any of Joseph M. Williams’ books will help you. Joseph M. Williams believes in principles and choices, rather than in rules that often are not rules.

Williams says in Style: the Basics of Clarity and Grace, “But since grammarians have been accusing the best writers of violating such rules for the last 250 years, we have to conclude that for 250 years the best writers have been ignoring both the rules and grammarians. Which is lucky for grammarians, because if writers did obey all their rules, grammarians would have to keep inventing new ones, or find another line of work.”

JOIN THE CULT OF ABSOLUTE RIGHTNESS

The cultish sounding comments to “The Future of English?”  are more interesting than the blog post itself. One person asks, “By the way, where is the editor in all this?!!!” And Jane replied, “Where is the editor, indeed. We pondered the same thing. Evidently, author and editor were complicit in choosing colloquial over scholarly English.”

I seldom use exclamation points, but what’s wrong with these people! Complicit! Duh! Jess Walter is a novelist, not a professor who can write only academese. To the H.W. Fowler wannabes, contemporary fiction writers are not using correct English unless they have their 21st Century characters, or their characters living in the future, talking like they’re in a Henry James or Edith Wharton novel. Fiction writers can’t be hobbled by all the rules of grammar and punctuation. In fiction, incomplete sentences, comma splices, invented words, and unconventional uses of grammar are acceptable. It all depends on what the writer wants to do, and what her readers want to read. That’s one reason why fiction writers—from Shakespeare to Twain to Jess Walter—have shaped English far more than H.W.Fowler.

Anyway, why are dead American writers—such as Sherwood Anderson, William Faulkner, and Mark Twain—allowed to have narrators and characters use Non-Standard American English without receiving condemnation from the grammar fundamentalists? Apparently, for people who worship H.W.Fowler, the only way a novelist can use “correct grammar” is to be dead over a hundred years. Maybe the fundamentalists also condemn great American writers of the past.

ASK ME IF I CARE

One comment to Jane’s post said, “It is most encouraging to know that there are people who still care about the English language, grammar, and the sanctity of the written word.”

So, we’re supposed to believe that Jess Walter does not care about English because he masterfully uses our language to create compelling stories. That’s a bizarre concept, indeed. I wonder why the grammar snobs who love the English language so much don’t use it to write fiction themselves. Maybe they’re not observant, imaginative, insightful, or humorous enough; maybe the writing, revising, and editing are way too much work for them. Criticizing someone else’s writing is easy.

The grammar snobs’ love for our language reminds me of my love for our lawn. Our one acre lumpy yard is an obstacle course of trees, shrubs, raised garden beds, animal pens, and junk I’ll recycle some day. When I pay Sharon’s teenage nephew Mitch to mow our lawn, I’ll spot everything he did not do correctly. When I mow the lawn myself, I do a far worse job than Mitch has ever done. I was not cut out to do some things, and that’s why I’ll continue to pay Mitch. Grammar snobs should leave the writing to writers and take knitting or some other hobby.

As for the comment about “the sanctity of the written word,” I understand what the sanctity of human life means. Life is a deep topic that provokes interesting arguments. But, considering the definition of sanctity, the “sanctity of the written word” is a little too pretentious. I love to read—fiction and nonfiction—and I love to write. I find some arrangements of words interesting; other words are not the least bit interesting to me. And since I don’t fall in love with my own words, I’m sure not going to worship anybody else’s typing. Have I committed word sacrilege?

As part of Grammarbook.com’s mission to save the English speaking world by stopping us barbarians from using “the people’s English, not the scholars’ English,” Jane says, “Our job … is to preserve and promote standard [sic] English.”

Oops! Finding a mistake on a grammar fundamentalist’s website is like catching a preacher going into a motel with a hooker. According to my infallible experts, an obedient grammar fundamentalist always capitalizes the “s” in [S]tandard English. I could leave a comment on Grammarbook.com saying “Gotcha!” but I don’t believe in the sanctity of the alphabet. Plus, I don’t want to waste brain energy by worrying about Jane’s mistakes or choices. Anyway, she’s human.

The only part of “The Future of English?” I agree with is where Jane writes, “If his [Jess Walter’s] writing is where the language is headed, we traditionalists must accept that we are fighting numerous losing battles.” Rite ye be, Jane. So maybe you and the other grammar fundamentalists should surrender unconditionally.

Write correctly, write incorrectly. If you keep writing, your writing will end up being what you and your readers want it to be.

Drunkespeare

 

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