Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Grammar Nazis

Children everywhere are raised to believe in absolutes. There are right ways and wrong ways of doing everything. This is understandable, as you have to start somewhere. However, with age quite often comes experience and a wider view of the world reveals multiple methods to achieve the same results. The value of one over another exposed as merely opinion. Yet, as with all things, some are convinced their opinions are better than others and can’t abide even the existence of a contrary thought.

Recently, my wife who has assumed the role of editor-in-chief of my books has been aggravated over the mystery of English grammar. This is a woman who graduated valedictorian of her high school, graduated in the top 3% of her engineering college class, and worked her way from grunt to president of an international corporation by the age of twenty-eight. Still, commas baffle her. Having an analytical, scientific mind, she wants everything to make sense…consistently. Math is her friend, grammar is more of a stand-offish acquaintance.

Math and I hate each other. Always have. We avoid each other as much as possible. Growing up, teachers and parents insisted I would need math no matter what I chose to do with my life. I proved them all wrong. Math is that disagreeable bastard I only speak to in proxy. “Honey, tell Math I hate him. Oh yeah, and find out how much money I made this month on book sales.” The idea that I needed to memorize all the tables that Math proudly admitted went on to infinity, was insane. But, like most early relationships, it was the Big Lie that broke us up. When after years of telling me you can’t subtract a larger number from a smaller one, Math admitted you could. What else was Math lying about? I could never trust him again and it was time to move on.

I never cared much for English either. The idea that I would have to memorize the spelling of every single word in the language, while not as crazy as the infinity-challenge of Math, it was still too daunting a task to seriously consider. Sure, teachers promised you could use rules like i before e to take the guesswork out, but just like Math, it was all a con. The rules never worked.

Art never asked me to memorize anything. He had no rules so he couldn’t lie. Art made no demands and just wanted to please. I hung out with Art, cause Art was cool. Art was the guy who never went to class, who smoked pot and talked about multiple universes while laying on the grass in torn jeans watching the clouds roll by. He wasn’t the kind you wanted your parents to see you hanging out with. “Why don’t you hang out with Math and English more? They’re nice. You’ll never amount to anything if you keep associating with that Art.”

Thing was, I did have this crush on English. Once I got over the “books have cooties stage,” I fell in love. I wouldn’t admit it at school, but I secretly wrote stories. I knew I didn’t have a chance—not with English. Talk about aiming too high. She was unfathomable and fickle, but I tried anyway. The thing is, I learned she wasn’t as stuck-up, or straight-laced as everyone said. Turned out, when I got her alone, she was a lot more like Art than Math. It was only when she was out with people. People that expected her to be so buttoned-down and perfect all the time that she froze up. That’s when I realized the problem.


I remember an old Barney Miller episode where an English aficionado was distressed by the degradation of the English language by advertising. He freaked at ads with words like “flavorosity!” and “scrumptiousnessity!’ He railed against the affront with all the fervor of a high priest faced with blasphemy. At the time, I thought it was funny.

In the early eighties, an English major I worked with was beside herself when she saw the word “glitz” in the newspaper. “It isn’t a word!” she screamed as if in pain, and ranted for days on the subject, which somehow bled through to the fall of society as we know it. Of course nowadays, glitz is a word. So is muggle, even though my Word spell check disagrees for now.

Living languages, grow. They change.

The word for the tops of multiple buildings used to be written, rooves, just like hooves. Sometime ago that changed to roofs. Why? Because that is how the majority of people preferred it and used it.

That’s the thing about language. It isn’t Math. It isn’t Science. There is no singular authority on the subject. Many people and organizations attempt to declare themselves such, or point to references they feel are absolute, but in reality, the English language has no rules. Latin does, because Latin is dead, but as long as English is alive, any practitioner of the language is an authority on it. Anyone can invent a word, or alter the grammar to suit themselves, and if it proves sound to the general users, it will become chiseled into the framework. Shakespeare is cited as having invented at least 1,700 words and phrases and he was only a lowly playwright not a college professor, Prime Minister of Language, or even the king. That’s what it means to be a living language.

And yet, there are always Grammar Nazis who insist that all writing in English must conform to a set of highly arcane rules that read like a different language in themselves.

“Common introductory phrases that should be followed by a comma include participial and infinitive phrases, absolute phrases, nonessential appositive phrases, and long prepositional phrases (over four words).”

Stereo installation instructions are easier to follow.

This is why it isn’t unusual to find self-accredited authorities on the subject who disagree with one another. Perhaps the most famous being whether or not to place a comma before the “and” in a list. (I frequently leave out the “and” altogether in protest.) But put any two editors in a room, propose a question, and you’ll likely get three answers.

This is what drives my editor/wife insane. She hangs out with Math. She likes an ordered world where the rules never change (let’s not talk about negative numbers, I still have flashbacks.) She feels certain that there must be an answer to all this confusion. If only she was smarter. If only she studied the sacred tomes of Englishosity more she could find the holy grail of comma usage and this would let her sleep at night.

My opinion is different.

Language, like Art, is communication. As long as I get my point across clearly, concisely, consistently, and with as little confusion as possible—it’s good. The rest is pretentious fascism—which, of course, is why I don’t edit my own books. Did I mention I hung out with Art in school?

(While researching the proper usage of the term Grammar Nazi--which apparently I did not coin--I found this. Be advised, while funny, it contains strong language.)


  1. Michael, posts like this are why I visit your blog. I hung with Art too, we must have passed in the hall or something. Keep posting and I'll keep reading.

    (Notice the lack of comma there? I'm a rebel too.)

  2. Blasphemy! I shall pray for your Math-starved soul that Math himself does not strike you down for such heretical sayings.

    All that aside, I would have to side with your wife on this one. Give me rules and nice lines and boxes :-)

  3. Very well said. I have to agree with you. English - really, any currently used language - is alive and changing. The thing about "new" words is so true. With your example of "glitz" I immediately thought of Shakespeare! There are so many common, everyday words that he created. Whenever I hear one, I'm always surprised - and impressed. While some of the "rules" are there to help make things clearer (think "Let's eat, Grandma" vs. "Let's eat Grandma"), some rules are more preference than actual black-and-white rules. It must make "correcting" the books an interesting endeavor once it's been proofed by a few people!

  4. Thanks Wendy, I heard Art is working at a hipster coffee shop in SoHo now, and complaining about how commercial it has become.

    Derrick, did you know that in Welsh mythology Math was the ruler of northern Wales and had to have his feet rest in a virgin's lap when he wasn't at war or he would die?

    Ham: "Let's eat Grandma" Okay, commas...important safety tip. Thanks.

  5. I think I am hanging out with Robin. :) Math and science where my things in school. Language and English just drove me crazy. All those exceptions to the rules. Really!?! :D I am still confused on the comma thing, but I have been trying to get to know them. Sometimes I over use them and others not enough. But slowly I am getting to use them, don't know if they are right but like you said, "As long as I get my point across clearly, concisely, consistently, and with as little confusion as possible—it’s good." I have to agree with this.

  6. I believe this is what Stephen Fry calls a "blessay", and a great one at that.

    Now that I think about it, 'blessay' itself is a neologism born from a neologism. And therefore fitting on multiple levels.

    I'm some modern breed of grammararian. I like playing with words, being poetic, and can enjoy quirky structures. But some things are wrong or abominable, plain and simple. Abuse of punctuation, or writing that wouldn't be comprehensible when read aloud, destroys my immersion in the text.

    On that reading aloud note, let attempt tacking a complex subject on very little sleep:

    take three bodies of words. All the same words, all the same order, all the same message. One is performed verbally. One is written out by someone with a tenuous grasp of grammar. One is written out by someone with an impeccable grasp of grammar.

    Each of the three produces a different experience for the audience, but you'd be hard pressed to find someone who enjoyed the grammatically impoverished version as much as either of the others.

    Flaws are scratches and smudges on the window to that other world. When the writing isn't ground down to optimal transparency, it's distracting and gets in the way.

    I, by the way, was an academic slut in school.

  7. Couldn't agree with you more. I'm married to Art. I wanna be Art. Art is dashing, fit, romantic and adaptable to any situation. But don't call on him in a real emergency. Math is a stern, tall, gaunt man with a monocle and a cane and he has deep creases in his forehead and cheeks, and a few stringy strands of gray hair across his pate.

  8. This post reminded me of omid djalili's sketch 'Apostrophes for Africa' which had me rolling in the aisles - much like your post.

  9. Agreed. And let's not forget that in many cases creative usages of grammar can itself be a form of art. Just look at Kurt Vonnegut for good examples! I think the best advice came from my professor who said, "You need to first learn the rules before you can break them."

  10. A panda walks into a bar...

    I admit, I straddle the line between a love affair with math and with art. Both are jealous, too. Just when I think I have art in bed with me, math comes wandering it begging for a second chance. How can I resist? Maybe we can try a threesome... but that never works, someone always feels left out.

    But I agree... as long as you are getting your message across clearly to the audience, then who cares where the commas are. If folks read a story and are distracted by grammar they don't like, then they aren't the kind of fans I'm interested in personally.

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