Monday, July 9, 2012

Grammar Nazis


Over the long course of years in which your writing activities have led you through the doors of publication and, indeed, into the very rooms in which decisions to publish are made, you have been aware of a lurking presence related to writing that did not, you believe, chose the stern, unrelenting presence the mere mention of their name suggests.

These lurking presences of your earlier reference are known by a number of names.  The most common names among them are the English teacher and the retired English teacher.  To give the focus absolute clarity here, you do not mean active or retired teachers whose place of birth was somewhere in the UK.  You mean a teacher whose primary task it to instruct individuals in the nooks and crannies of the grammar, syntax, and rhetorical implications of the English language.

Such individuals—teachers of the grammar of the English language-- toss of predicate nominatives and pluperfect subjunctives the way John Wayne tossed of his trademark frown of disapproval; they diagram sentences in their sleep, look with suspicion on irregular verbs, and eschew pleonasm with ├ęclat.  Their ducks are in a row, their verbs are conjugated, their sentences would not dare end with a preposition. 

They guard the language the way Jack Benny guarded his vault.  Some of them move beyond mere high school venues; they become grammarians, developing in the process cruel twitches at the corner of the mouth, the ability to raise an eyebrow as though it were the awning of some posh boutique, the quality of projecting disdain and worse.  For every split infinitive, God kills a kitten.

There are, to be sure, valuable citizens as well as individuals of genuine niceness in their midst.  You have been instructed by more than one of them, although in some cases arguments may be ventured that you failed to heed their admonitions.  A serious problem arises from time to time when you, your voice hoary with exasperation and laden with a tired martyrdom, inform a particular group of students that you give up in your attempts to get them to stop using as and like in ways suggesting they are interchangeable in meaning.

There are times when you will appear to have “gone over” to the side of the English teacher, although in fact your exhortations are more on the side of advocacy for things an English teacher would not advocate.  For examples, you find no problems with beginning sentences with “but,” or “And.”  You could even see the way for an “Or,” and possibly a “yet.”  Nor do you object to one-word paragraphs.

Many English teachers have given you gifts of learning, of amazement at the depth and potentials inherent in our strange tongue.  So why does the thought of them cause such a prolonged build-up of steam?  Because English teachers have, in your experience, committed unthinkable indignities on novels and short stories, not the least offense being the insistence that all paragraphs have topic sentences, which they develop.

By your count, you are nearly five hundred words into what was intended as an observation but which instead has become a screed.  The observation was simplicity exemplified:  Forget the English teacher.  Get an editor—one with book experience, one who has line edited and performed other editorial tasks relative to the rearranging of the narrative furniture.

You’ve heard learned arguments that our species, Homo sapiens sapiens, has evolved to the point of functional perfection.  Never mind wisdom teeth.  And learn to live with male pattern baldness.  The species may have completed its evolution, but the languages it speaks, in particular English, are in as steady a movement as a column of army ants attacking some road kill.  Far from a grammarian or rhetorician, you can pretty well pinpoint the century of a novel’s being published by the use of narrative and of vocabulary.  You would, for one glaring example, not confuse the intended meaning of the word gay in a novel by Jane Austen with the same word in, say, John Irving.

Returning to the point of intention, grammarians keep up with rules, editors are more apt to keep up with usage and that precious sense of conversationality that, when achieved, convinces readers they are in the heads and feelings of the characters.

A common contemporary trope of these early years of the twenty-first century is to compare every rule we do not admire with the agendas of the late, little-lamented National Socialist Party of The Third Reich, the Nazis.  How tempting to think of the English teacher or grammarian in that way, particularly after the late, lamented TV series “Seinfeld,” gave us The Soup Nazi, and our own California surfers gave us the concept from which you believe inspired The Soup Nazi, The Surf Nazi, am highly territorial surfer who was not about to let newbies surf his terrain.

Again you see the emotional power of association:  What was meant to be a panegyric to editors becomes a continuous mutter about the power of the English teacher on a manuscript.

Oil and water.

Do not confuse one with the other.

Do not confuse the English teacher with a book editor.  Their purposes and intentions are entirely different.  The former is looking for clarity of expression, conveyance of meaning according to received standards.  The latter is alert for nuance of meaning, to be sure, but she is also aware of those two remarkable guides, story, which is to say drama, and voice, which is to say evocation of the narrative source from characters as opposed to declarative sentences in proper grammatical progression.

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