“Some English that might strive thine ear to please” — John Keats, Sonnet to Spenser
I recently spent a week being paid to care very much that tenses agreed and singular nouns did not precede plural verbs. That is, I was copy editing.
And here I arrive at the limit of my ability to describe proper grammar. I am a whole-body grammarian, meaning that I learned grammar by osmosis, not by studying its rules. I can put a sentence together correctly. I can correct other people’s sentences. But I often have trouble explaining why something is right. I’m like a musician who doesn’t understand theory but plays a mean blues guitar.
This is why I treasure people like The Grammar Diva and Grammar Girl, refer to books like Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, and renew my online subscription to The Chicago Manual of Style every year. They give me evidence when a client asks me a grammar zinger.
Let’s talk about Big-G Grammar
But I don’t want to talk about grammar today. It’s almost Independence Day and I want to talk about Grammar. Big-G Grammar has implications far beyond the pedantry of the schoolteacher with reading glasses dangling from a chain around her scrawny neck.
1) CLARITY. Mean what you say and say what you mean. Without grammar’s rules, you can take all kinds of liberties and who’s to say what you really mean? Look only as far as the two sentences “Let’s eat Grandma!” and “Let’s eat, Grandma!” to see that commas save lives.
2) HEGEMONY. The dominant culture dominates by enforcing rules. Grammar is one of them. When people feel threatened by outside voices, rules around language make them feel safer. They may declare English the official language and fight to keep slang out of public school education.
3) UNITY. See “hegemony,” above. We cling to the cadence and structure of our regional speech, whether we’re from Maine, New York, South Carolina, North Dakota, or California. Of course, nobody believes they have an accent or speak in idioms that others might not understand. Dialect becomes another characteristic to divide—or unite.
4) CLASS AND RACE. See “hegemony” and “unity.” A one-percenter from Michigan probably sounds more like a one-percenter from Tennessee than like someone at the bottom quarter of income earners in her home state. Grammar stratifies. We try to shout through the strata. Sometimes a crack opens and we can hear one another. Too often we hear words—”DON’T PULL IT OUT” and “I CAN’T BREATHE!”—that frighten or threaten us, so we put our hands over our ears. Or worse.
The dream of one world grammar is as foolish as the dream of one world government. Instead, let’s look inward, to understand how we put together words and sentences. Then let’s turn that knowledge outward, to understand how people who are not like us speak, and, by extension, think. It won’t always be perfect; there will be misstatements and misunderstandings. Let’s devote ourselves to a love of grammar not for grammar’s sake but as a bridge to the larger world.
That seems like a nice goal for Independence Day.
To lighten the mood, here are a couple more videos to go out on. The first is actually an ad, but worth watching.
And finally, just for fun, a Monty Python sketch. Not about grammar exactly. I’ll never say “tin” the same way.
Halfway through the summer of free books
I’m doing two Goodreads giveaways this summer, even though author Carrie Rubin cautioned against it (so don’t enter if you plan to scam me).
As soon as that one ends, you’ll be able to enter to win one of five signed copies of What Remains Unsaid. Starts July 7, 2017 and runs through August 8. VIEW GIVEAWAY.
Happy summer reading!