Sam Sanders and Grammar

Yesterday (as I’m writing this, two days ago as you’re reading this), I saw this tweet series by Sam Sanders (Sam Sanders ‏@samsanders ) who I learned by visiting his twitter profile is part of NPR–which explains why I was so interested–I love NPR (and their journalists). First, here are his tweets (edited only to take care of some formatting that would bother me and no one else):

  1. I feel a tweet storm coming on. Bear with me, folks.

  2. Let’s talk about grammar, correcting people’s grammar, and what that all means. I’ve been noticing it a lot w/listeners recently, and…

  3. To be clear, listeners and readers correcting me and other journo friends. I think grammar is real, it matters, etc. But I also think

  4. That grammar policing can be obnoxious, condescending, and pointless, at its worst. Cause, come on. Think about it.

  5. Words and turns of phrase, and the frigging CREATION OF NEW LANGUAGE, should not be stifled. It should be understood

  6. Also, when I’m doing radio/podcast stuff, I try to talk like a real person would, with you, over a drink. And real people..

  7. Real people, in the real world, RARELY FOLLOW THE RULES OF GRAMMAR. If they did, they would seem obnoxious AF.

  8. Another point, the majority of grammar policing I see is against words, and language created by marginalized groups.

  9. We police language of women for sounding too much like women, of Black people for sounding too black, of gay people for sounding too gay

  10. At its worst, grammar policing is quasi-racist/sexist/homophobic/xenophobic, etc. NOT SAYING ALL, but for sure some of it can be

  11. & when you look at it that way, if very public, disparaging policing of language actually meant to edify? Or is it doing something else

  12. How often is language and grammar policing used to tell someone of marginalized status they don’t belong, or aren’t smart enough?

  13. And if you really want to help, is tweeting loudly into the night about some arcane grammar rule really the way to get there?

  14. As a student of the culture, I firmly believe that new language is usually created by people that are oppressed/marginalized/ridiculed

  15. It’s a survival tactic. Think: black people, teenaged girls, and the LGBTQ community CREATE culture, language, DAILY

  16. And I am HERE for it. Why police creativity? Why police ingenuity? That’s all I got.

Since grammar is one of my passions, I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit since I saw it.

First, I never correct people’s grammar. Wait, let me amend for honesty. I never correct people’s grammar out loud to them. I use correct grammar when I’m responding and a few people (mostly students because they’re awesome) have picked up on it. This may be because I grew up in a family that was a bit…prickly…about correction (and would drag out reference books to prove points. Yes, we have reference books. Lots of them). Or perhaps because everyone had good manners and correcting people’s grammar when you aren’t being paid or asked to do so is rude. Parents of learning children are also allowed. Unless it’s an item of general interest, keep it to yourself. (For instance, ye, as in Ye Olde Ice Cream Shoppe is called a thorn and is pronounced “the.” Interesting, no?)

Second, grammar is important. It’s how language works. And since the advent of printing, the grammar doesn’t usually change too rapidly. Usage does. Yes, I am aware that people use grammar to mean “correct use of the language.” Yes, I do it myself (see name of catagory). However, a lot of what people mean is usage. Here’s something to illustrate the difference: English grammar permits someone to split an infinitive (“to boldly go”). Fuddy-duddy English usage doesn’t (because of Latin. No, that doesn’t make sense. It’s not my rule.)

Because of this, people get a bit confused. They often enshrine their preferences (or more likely, their third grade teacher’s preferences) as an immutable law. And since other people’s internal third grade teachers disagree, we end up with unnecessary arguments and corrections. Depending on the internal grammar person this can, indeed, be “obnoxious, condescending, and pointless, at its worst.” Certainly, there are people who use correction to boost themselves at the expense of others, or as a basis for justifying their prejudices, almost certainly when we’re talking about Sanders. I would bet money, if I had any, that the people correcting him are white (not everything is about race, but this probably is). Condescension,almost certainly. As to pointless, change only comes if the person wants to change (and has a reason to do so). I’m sure that having random people on the internet scolding a person for things that may not actually be wrong isn’t the way to go.

Third, spoken language is obviously less formal than written. The same people who are such sticklers for “correct” language should realize that. Perhaps because this is associated with NPR people believe there’s a higher standard? Non-scripted conversation is even less formal. If that’s the style that Sanders is aiming for, then obviously his listeners should pick up on that, no matter where it appears (on the radio, online). My guess is, for some of these folks, the love of correcting others is of a higher priority than using a wee bit of common sense. However, I would say that some of us are conversationally formal (you try being raised by an English teacher and see what that does to your language.). I’ve had to learn to “loosen up” a bit when speaking because people thought I was weirder than I actually am. I would hope that people don’t think I’m obnoxious because I can use perfect tenses.

However, I find that most people follow the rules of the language. If they didn’t, we would be in the same state as the folks in Middle Age England who sometimes found that villages twenty miles apart spoke barely intelligible Englishes to the point that they didn’t even have the same word for egg (and the words weren’t at all similar). Sometimes a person’s Twitter feed (you know, those young people) is written in an English that is so distinct from my own that I can barely parse it. Now if people who write this way can’t code-switch sufficiently, I can’t imagine how many opportunities they are going to miss out on. Certainly, if they don’t get a good grounding in Standard/Basic/Boring English, then they aren’t going to get hired as readily, if at all. Considering how little grammar is taught in school, and how few things written in Boring English some people read, then I’m not sure how well people will pick up on an English that is radically different then the ones they are exposed to, either spoken or texted.

And yes, that hits people who are poor, who are Black, whose parents aren’t as rigorously educated, who aren’t native speakers disproportionately. I was listening to NPR recently (surprise!) about people who were taking/had taken adult literacy classes (SUCH a good story, by the way). One of the people who was interviewed had started with a (barely) third grade reading level and progressed to a sixth grade (wow!). The relevance here is that, because she wasn’t comfortable with reading, she didn’t read to her children. Reading wasn’t prized. And because of that, none of her girls did as well as they could have because they weren’t fluent readers. If a person is bi-dialectal (speaks two dialects of English), then the specific grammars that the person speaks or writes is just interesting. If, however, the person has only one grammar, and it’s one that isn’t prized, then life is going to be harsher than it needs to be. Grammar does matter–arguably, for people who are less in touch with the majority, grammar matters more. That sucks, but it’s a part of life. People assume that people with non-standard grammar are less worthwhile–which is not only a shame, but also harmful to everyone. I want my students’ voices and ideas to be heard, to be appreciated. But when their subjects and verbs don’t agree, people will dismiss them without hesitation. Standard grammar can be a matter of survival.

Fourth, having written all of that, I like language innovation (I’m still trying to figure out the origin of “yasssss” because I think etymology is interesting). I love that often marginalized people, as Sanders rightly points out, are the creators and promulgators of new expressions, phrases, vocabulary and ideas. I’ve never used “throwing shade” until now, but I’m happy it exists. Maybe because this is vocabulary and usage rather than grammar. What I don’t like is when people abuse my beloved language–like the use of impact because business people couldn’t be bothered to learn the difference between affect and effect. Or randomly decide that there is always singular. (There is four puppies, really? That doesn’t sound wrong?)

Having said all that, I’d like to thank Sanders for making me think about where I stand and decide what was worth defending. I try not to be elitist, and having to examine what I believe and what I do is helpful!

I’m not sure if anyone else will see my distinctions, but I wanted to say my piece as well. What do you all think?

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Uncontrollable Editing

I have a terrible condition. It’s chronic, but it also flares up at inconvenient moments, often in public. It’s embarrassing for me  and the people around me, especially when I can’t control the urge to shout.

It’s called Uncontrollable Editing Syndrome, UES for short. UES cause me to yelp out corrections to people on television, in the newspapers and in books. Signs are a particular problem, what with all the extraneous apostrophes. I have to bite my tongue to avoid correcting people who say “between you and I.” I have heated discussions with other sufferers about word choice– “Is crash appropriate in an accident involving one car and one pedestrian?” I correct tweets and Facebook posts. I have refused to vote for politicians because they thought that there is always singular.

I never really had a chance, though. My mother was an English teacher. I was raised in a poisonous environment of proper English and reading. I had a library card before most kids can even read, which twisted my poor brain beyond any hope.

It was made worse in college. More reading, yes, but also classes in linguistics, taught by recognized experts. Even a required grammar class in grad school. It was awful. By that time, of course, I was desperately hooked. Any lingering hope of recovery was dashed.

By grad school it was clear that I was going to have to find some way of dealing with UES, so I began teaching freshman composition. I know now that making that decision was unwise–it only added to my misery. Seeing new mistakes only energized my disease. Each semester made it worse. By the first year with my MA I was teaching five comp courses. Five.

I know now what my limits are, two classes a semester. Admittedly, since I dabble in developmental classes, it’s more like the hard stuff, but at least it’s manageable.

But there’s something that you can do to help! Get yourself a handbook–if you don’t have to worry about citation styles, purchase a second-hand one (they’ll be cheap, I promise). Read and practice a section at a time until you truly understand the basic rules of our language. Fill your mind with excellent, well-edited prose. Follow people on social media who can conjugate. Refuse to watch programs that have poor speaking habits. Demand that newspapers and nightly news programs hire copy editors. Take a grammar or linguistics class. Refuse to put apostrophes when you need a simple plural (“Pizza’s for $5” ?!?). Embrace proper punctuation and usage, mechanics and style. Only then can sufferers of UES like me put our poor minds at rest.

Please. We’re counting on you.

The Enthusiast–Review

The Enthusiast by Josh Fruhlinger came to fruition by way of Kickstarter (note–I contributed at the $15 level), but don’t dismiss it because of that.

Fruhlinger writes The Comics Curmudgeon blog and you will get more out of the novel if you are a regular reader (as I am), but it’s not required for enjoying it (by the way, why are you not reading it? It’s snarky!).

The novel has several moments that made me laugh or smile. The book itself bounces along at a great clip, but the characters are so well-drawn that it’s never confusing or unclear. The main character is great–someone I enjoyed spending three hundred or so pages with (don’t let the length intimidate–not only is the prose brisk, but there are also inner illustrations and reproductions of texts that take up some space). I don’t know if a sequel is planned (the ending ties everything up nicely, but the world that’s presented here could easily accommodate one.

One of the other things that I like was that everything had a place in the plot. Some seemingly inconsequential piece of exposition would turn up later. I appreciate the thought that goes into that kind of world-building and detail work. Another level of thoughtfulness that I noticed was that the commentators from various forums read as real and distinct (I think Fruhlinger’s years of having a blog shows up there!).

Sometimes a male author will have problems writing a female supporting character, but Kate, the main character, rang true. At no point did I think “Yep, that’s what a male author would assume a woman was like” as I have with other authors.

The only problem I encountered was something that other people might not even notice, but as someone who teaches her students not to do this, I found obtrusive–the use of “you” as a pronoun when it didn’t really belong. This is not from the novel (because all of the examples are hiding from me!), but as an example: “Kate liked the look of the station. First you noticed the archways and then…” Since this is third person, that you should be a she–we’re seeing everything from her perspective. This crops up more and more as the novel progresses, but if it’s not your particular pet peeve, or you’re under 25, you probably won’t notice (those “you”s are fine–I’m speaking directly to the reader).

I recommend this novel–it’s a great, boisterous read with an interesting premise and skilled writing.

Review–The Poisonous Seed

The Poisonous Seed by Linda  Stratmann is set in Victorian London (with occasional forays elsewhere) and follows the adventures of Frances Doughty, who works in her father’s chemist’s shop.

The book has an excellent sense of place and character–both seemed utterly real, in part because the author herself worked as a chemist. Another factor is her research–she has a list of texts at the end in case you want to know more, always a nice touch. I think I’ve mentioned that characterization is important to me, and this book does a really nice job. Even the supporting and minor characters are fully fleshed out (but without lumps of exposition, something I don’t have great patience for).

However, the main mystery is quite confusing, just by its nature. It’s not just one person who isn’t who he says he is–there are three or four. And most of that part takes place in various times over the past thirty or so years. The author tried to make it as clear as she could, but I was so confused. It didn’t help that because this was set in Victorian England, everyone had traditional English names (a Papadokas or a Yang would have been easier to keep track of, but are not historically accurate!).

All in all, though, I liked the author’s style and the end made me look up her next book and borrow it from the library–which I’ve done. I’ll see what I think of the next one–that may be a better example of the author’s work.

Literally a Blog Post

This is literally a request from one of my readers (perhaps all of my readers?). I mean that literally. Or do I?

Many of the students that I teach are young, sixteen to twenty years old. Slightly more than half are female. And about twenty percent of those (or so) have a verbal tic. They use “literally” as an intensifier. (In case you’re curious, the fellows tend to tic on “you know?”). This drives many people, particularly of an older generation, nuts.

Newer dictionaries may include this definition in their entries. Check out the informal definitions here. To understand why, we need a little background. Originally, dictionaries were meant to illustrate the “correct” way of spelling, pronouncing, and using words. This worked reasonably well and allowed people to open a dictionary and say “See, I’m right!” Much fun was had by people like me who like to be correct.

At some point, the dictionary folks decided that perhaps their job was not just to please people like me, but also to record how people used the language. This caused great consternation from the “but how will we prove it’s wrong?” crowd. (If you want to know more, look up prescriptive vs descriptive–it’s going to mostly be about grammar, but dictionaries pop up too).

So, now we are in the situation that if people look up literally,  they will discover that their usage is supported (although with an asterisk–note that both of the non-standard uses are noted as “informal”). But its original meaning (something that would normally be considered figurative but is happening) remains opposite from the current usage. So what do we do?

A couple of things spring to mind. One, we could teach elocution or public speaking in schools. One of the reasons that people use these verbal tics is that they get nervous when speaking in front of cameras, teachers, bosses and when they are passionate or excited about something. If they are more comfortable with presenting themselves verbally, they should say fewer uhs, ahs, ums, you knows, and literallys.

Another option is to either force the dictionary makers to go back to prescriptivism (good luck!), have them note preferred usage, or publish two dictionaries–one prescriptive and one descriptive. However, in a free  country (with a wild, ever-changing language) with no Academy to enforce language (which mostly doesn’t work–the French version has been fighting for decades against “Le weekend” without much luck) that’s unlikely.

Third, we could install small shock collars on everyone to rid them of their linguistic tics like those invisible fences that we use for dogs. However, if it’s cruel to do to dogs, it’s probably cruel for people. Even the people who, you know, literally go on, you know, television, and like, literally drive the people, like at home, you know, insane, you know.

Fourth, we could all self-medicate with whatever lowers our stress levels, man, and just love one another, you grok?

Other ideas?

Review–Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits

Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits by David Wong is his third book. I LOVED John Dies at the End and This Book is Full of Spiders but I was trepidacious about this new one because it wasn’t the continuation of the first two books (which I loved. Did I mention that?).

I shouldn’t have worried. I began reading Futuristic Violence and didn’t do a whole lot else. Although it’s almost 400 pages, I whipped through it at supersonic speed. Yes, it’s violent (see title). And frequently juvenile. And it certainly doesn’t shy away from gross outs and naughty language. But it was fantastic.

Although, I wouldn’t be a pendant if I didn’t point out that David Wong has a MAJOR comma splice addiction (I do not know how he has been a professional writer this long without some editor beating this habit out of him. With a stick. Covered in bees). And there are a few moments where the things happening to the characters, especially the main one, made me cringe.

But it’s soooooo good. It’s funny. And awesome. The man can write a female protagonist, something that I think he was trying out here.

If you like the Evil Dead franchise or things like it, you’ll probably enjoy this book. After you’ve read John Dies see the movie–it’s good fun as well. (Then maybe someone will make Spiders and Violence into movies too!)

Great book, but…

I just finished Spelled by Betsy Schow. Great book with an interesting take on the land of fairy tales. It has a really brisk pace and is imaginative and funny–really delightful, clever, and funny! But…

Somehow a few grammar-y things slipped through (yes, I know–grammar is not mechanics, punctuation, or usage, but we’re going with the colloquial usage here). I’m not sure who is responsible for that sort of thing these days–I know that editors are given less time with books. And certainly, the lack of teaching grammar (usage, mechanics, punctuation)  in school has decreased. But I hate when I am reading for pleasure and I get pulled out of the story for errors. (I realize that because I am making a post about grammar (and the rest) that I will make at least one dunderheaded error in this post. So be it.)

The first thing that I noticed was an ever more common hyper-correction–people who seem to believe that the word “me” is a naughty word to be avoided whenever possible. I think it began in elementary school. Susie says “Me and Billy got ice cream.” Teacher corrects “Billy and I got ice cream.” This is all good. Certainly, a person should not say “Me got ice cream” no matter what else is going on (except Tarzan. He’s allowed). There is also the tradition in English that the other person in a sentence is supposed to go first. It’s a bit of chivalry that lingers, and I like it.

Here’s the problem. Because no one explains the rules, people have to guess what standard English is, if something else is spoken at home and/or the person in question doesn’t read enough. So the person hyper-corrects and begins saying things like “People who got ice cream included Billy and I.” Ugh. It’s just ugly, isn’t it? It should read “People who got ice cream included Billy and me.” Because if you can replace the phrase (someone’s name and pronoun) with us, you’d use me. If you can replace it with we, then you’d use I. An even simpler trick is to just (temporarily–I’m not advocating killing people to make sentences easier) get rid of the phrase and keep the pronoun. “People who got ice cream included I”? Nope. Ugly. Makes me shudder (yes, really). “Give the present to I”? No present for you, until you clear your speech of barbarisms.

There were a few instances in the novel of those. And every time, I stopped reading to say “me.”

The other problem might be a little more controversial. I’m pretty sure there were comma splices. Ish. Lemme explain. Here’s an example (not from the book): “I love rabbits, I hate radishes, but I do like them cooked.” To my way of thinking, there should be a semicolon between “rabbits” and “I.” “I love rabbits; I hate radishes, but I do like them cooked.” I’d be interested in seeing how other people interpret it.

In another book I read recently, there were sentences like “I walked down the lane, I stood at the window, and I dodged the crossbow bolt fired from behind me.” I know that that’s a series there, but I don’t like it. Why not three short sentences or one short sentence and a semicolon between the last two independent clauses?

And there was a third thing that for the life of me I can’t remember. I’ll edit this and add it in when it comes back to me (not comes back to I!).

Believe it or not, I don’t want to do this–I want to become immersed in a world and enjoy. But my internal copy editor just won’t let me sometimes. But do read the book–the very few flaws don’t outweigh the loveliness of it all.