Thursday, July 15

Who Lives by Grammar, Dies by Grammar

Back in 1989, I was stationed at Fort Ord, California, serving as a radio operator in 127th Signal Battalion. Situated 53 miles away from San Jose, we still felt the impact of the Loma Prieta earthquake. We were standing in formation at the end of the day, the First Sgt. called us to attention just prior to dismissing us, and as our boots smacked together the ground began to dance. We heard mirrors and fragile objects falling and shattering inside the barracks, and soldiers fled the building clutching towels around their waists. Every single car alarm in the parking lot screamed in petulant attention-seeking. Eventually the rumbling stopped and we laughed nervously in our relief and shock.

That was my first real earthquake. It was exponentially larger than standing on a bridge while a huge, heavy 18-wheeler lumbers by. I regarded the event with a detached curiosity because I was unable to reconcile with what the ground was doing in direct contrast to what it had always done for the 19 years previous. Some remote part of my mind had the wherewithal to wonder whether the ground would, in fact, crack right open and swallow me whole.

It did not, obviously, but I'm going through the same sensation of groundlessness lately: people much more learned and far, far better educated than I are letting me know that my confrontational position on language is wrong.

I'll go ahead and start out by depicting my early grammatical career as that of a prescriptivist: I felt the dictionary was a book of rules to be followed. A descriptivist, by contrast, feels a dictionary is merely a magazine that comes out once in a while to report on contemporary language trends.

My friends were as furious with and intolerant of my grammatical policing and logolepsy as I was with the slightest grammatical or punctuative infraction, the misuse of words, casual misspellings, &c. You will concede, of course, that when one is bound to bray over writing errors, one's environment provides an abundances of grievances over which to revel. There is no shortage of material, is what I'm saying, about which to complain or be horrified by, and by these methods to attempt to gain glory, respect, and pride in one's discipline.

But it doesn't work that way. People just find you annoying and stop inviting you to parties.

Then someone recommended that I read John McWhorter's The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language. My friends breathed a huge sigh of relief when I expressed my revelation of language as an organic process (my battles with the maleficent foe that is "living language" were comedy gold for them and garnered me no sympathy with anyone, ever, at all). But that turned around on them when I began to insist, per the tome's strictures, that there is actually no such thing as language: there is only the most popular dialect of a given region at a given time. And while I conceded that language will evolve to accommodate the stupidest of its speakers, as it has throughout history (and we see this even today, as high school teachers begin to admit "text-message-speak" in essays and writing), I took pains to really nail people to the wall on etymology. Knowing where words came from only made me curious as to where all of them came from and what they truly meant. And in using as many words as possible in their truest sense possible--to carefully select exactly the most correct word regardless of its colloquial interpretation--I began to alienate an entirely new group of people, but I also felt much better about myself, more confident.

That confidence has been dissembled today. I've been catching up on Stephen Fry's "podgrams." He is a humorist, writer and actor for whom I hold tremendous respect and admiration. And then today I happened upon his blog entry-cum-podgram about "Language" (blog entry here), and I started to get excited and rejoice in listening to such a deep thinker and colorful, lavish orator expound upon a subject so close to my heart...

Only to receive the most gradual boot to the teeth imaginable (as our current laws of Physics would be taxed to permit). He detests the proud and arch linguists, the Grammar Nazis, those who vaunt their half-clue grasp of language over those bereaved of any clue. Fry roundly condemns those who get their panties in a bundle over a typo in a grocery store sign, appealing to a larger sense of priorities and a questioning of motives. To my horror and disappointment, he takes the side of "you know what they meant; there is no breakdown in communication," historically (in my experience) the recourse of those who can't live up to the rules of grammar/writing out of ignorance or laziness. But this is Stephen Fry, accomplished communicative icon, headmaster of letters, one of the few people I look up to. So when he says what's up and I disagree, my default is to assume I'm necessarily wrong.
"If you are the kind of person who insists on this and that ‘correct use’ I hope I can convince you to abandon your pedantry. Dive into the open flowing waters and leave the stagnant canals be."
I wish, I only wish, I could ask him what place he feels an editor has in this world; whether I should order a double-Socrates, no ice.

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