Grammar can save the world

“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).

The giveaway for three signed copies of Dance of Souls ends July 6, 2017. See the giveaway details at Goodreads. ENTER GIVEAWAY.

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!

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23 thoughts on “Grammar can save the world

  1. You hit some major truths in this post. (I’ve gotten really sloppy/creative about punctuation with my blog, but like wardrobe, it’s important to put on the right outfit for the occasion…blogging became the relaxed, for fun part, of my life contracting stick adherence to clear logic, mechanics, and accurate, precise vocabulary in my day job)
    Had to laugh when reflecting on this post and the Spanish language. The Spanish Academy, which makes the rules of that language for around the world, is quite strict., On formal pieces, it must be Academy form. But locally and in speech – what a wide range depending on the country. The vocabulary differs, the way words are said, and the cadence are so varied. Working with writers, publishers, and end users/readers/libraries/educators – it was always a fight. Each country insists theirs it the “correct” Spanish/vocabulary top use in print. And all of them snort at The Academy. Regionalism for sure. As you say, the goal is communication (and we worked to convince people that knowing several region’s words for the same concept/word only meant an increase in vocabulary power and understanding. A benefit…But their heart still said….)Gotta love human nature

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    • I think the French have something similar. I doubt if the U.S., with our wild-west roots and rugged individualist tendencies, would put up with some kind of board or academy to oversee language. Although individual enclaves have their authorities. There’s the MLA for academics, and the Chicago Manual of Style and Associated Press Style Guide for journalists–which of course each have their own adherents and warring factions.

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  2. Some of my university students make little grammar mistakes (apart instead of a part, it’s instead of its). They can lead to an interesting shift in meaning, and even a good laugh!

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  3. At heart, it’s about communication and being understood. Without standardization, people will toss down commas anywhere and their sentences will cease to make sense. I love Grammar Girl, Grammerly and my giant hardcover Chicago Manual of Style. Happy 4th!

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    • Being understood is the goal. I try to remember that when I get too persnickety about sticking to the rules. Being totally inflexible can lead to weird, awkward sentences devoid of personality. It’s all about finding a balance!

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  4. I’m exactly the same! I didn’t even realise how weak my grasp on why certain grammar is the way it is until I did some English as a foreign language coaching a couple of years ago – I was horribly conscious of being able to tell them which way we said something, but not why!

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  5. OMG, I might have to marry that grammar rant guy! I can never fully warm up to Monty Python. I kind of don’t get British humor most of the time.

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  6. I love how you took a common topic and steered it into a direction most of us have never considered. Really enjoyed reading it. And thank you for the mention. I don’t so much caution against the GR giveaways–it’s more I just wanted to pass along my own experience. But even with the scammers, they’re a great way to get your book in front of new eyes. Best of luck with it!

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