Bleatings of a Grammar Geek

Posted: February 16, 2009 in Culture, Grammar, Idle Nonsense, Media, Nomenclature, Writing
Tags: , ,

My first impression of this article at MSNBC about grammar geeks boiling over was that it’s more muckraking by the media: a pointless story about a nonissue (not that all stories must be life-and-death serious). Upon reflection, maybe there is something there worth considering. Although littered with clever and silly terms (language lovers, spelling snobs, grammar grunions, grammar vigilantes, grammar vandals, word nerds, word warriors, etc.), I was rather surprised not to see word rage or grammar rage used, or for that matter, the rather obvious grammar geek. In a story about grammar, punctuation, spelling, and usage, it’s also gratifying to note that the author did not commit a series of her own blunders (as I’m prone to do). I wasn’t proofreading, but I found only one error:

But these newly hip word warriors are doing more than writing odes to apostrophes and posting tips for people who don’t know their like or as from a hole in the ground.

When referring to words as words, one should quote or italicize as follows:

… people who don’t know their like or as from a hole in the ground.

That could be a simple HTML error, but I rather doubt it.

The real insights of this article, which get lost in the personal interest angle, are these two quotes:

But while blunders and bloopers have ever exasperated the spelling snobs and grammar grunions of the world, our recent woes — housing foreclosures, massive layoffs, rising debt and war — may be ratcheting up the pressure some feel to seize control of something (anything!), even if it’s just a properly placed comma.

An obsession with proper usage may be related to some kind of perfectionist streak, she says, or it could have to do with childhood patterns of wanting to please adults or teachers by doing things right. Putting somebody down by pointing out their bad spelling also could be a power thing. Or it could simply be part of the brain’s natural function.

These notions strike chords with me. With so many things wrong with the world and getting worse by the moment, stress is indeed mounting, which always requires an escape mechanism. Motivations to correct others and/or make a last stand on grammar and usage are a complex mix, but they’re always rooted in the recognition that something relatively simple — something well within the grasp and control of regular people, not just experts — is wrong and should be fixed. Society may not be perfectible, but signage and other modest everyday usage certainly is. Rage is an overcompensating response to language errors, but reproaches ranging from chiding to humor to even guerrilla corrections make sense to me.

Let me put this a different way. Words and language are tools of thought. If one is (charitably) sloppy about usage or doesn’t compensate for disabilities by enlisting the aid of editors and/or proofreaders, then it follows that one is probably just as sloppy in one’s thinking. This came up last week with Pres. Obama’s abuse of the term bottom line. In his press conference to discuss the stimulus/bailout, he answered questions and invoked the phrase no fewer than eight times, which seemed like a lot more than it actually was. Granted, he was off-script, and he should be given a little slack when speaking extemporaneously, but he doubled down on the phrase by actually enumerating several bottom lines, in the process conspicuously missing the critical point that the bottom line is the last, final measure of something, usually in financial terms. Admittedly, he has lots of concerns to balance in his job, but there can only be one bottom line.

When commonplace terms are misused, it marks issues as poorly conceptualized. When standards of usage are so abysmal and language so debased that the public conversation that takes place in the media, the halls of government, the school corridors, and the marketplace no longer carry sufficiently clear communicative content and are often bastardized to the point of insensibility, then how can we participate meaningfully as either citizens, students, or consumers?

Good usage is also a measure of how well one understands how to function within the limitations of complex systems. The two most egregious signals of someone concerned with style over substance or merely the rank inability to form coherent thought are those who speak with excessive slang or expletives. Those are usually placeholders for actual ideas, not ideas themselves.

This is an area where the Facebook group I Judge You When You Use Poor Grammar has it right. It’s unpopular to admit, but we all judge each other every day on a variety of levels. How one communicates is more important than, say, the size of one’s bank account or the style of one’s clothing. Meaningful interaction with others can’t be had on those criteria, but as social beings, our communication skills rule. The Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar (SPOGG) appears to be less, um, judgmental. Judgment is implicit, of course. Promoting something has a much nicer sound to it.

  1. My standards are different. If slang is rhythmic and indigenous and communicates shades of emotion, I’m all for it. If grammar requires longer sentences than most people speak, I generally break the rules. Sometimes, of course, a long sentence unravels too much beauty to snip into bits. I don’t find those sentences often and even if I did, such beauty depends upon a rare streak of light. We all need greater clarity, always, but it doesn’t come with guarantees, let alone rules. For me, original or even common thought, nuance, and fluidity will always trump the well placed semi-colon or a verb form free of interruption.

  2. Brutus says:

    I suspect we’re talking about different purposes in writing. Your focus is on fiction, which is full of fanciful usage and has a certain degree of creative license. I’m thinking of far more mundane writing: signage, newsprint, business reports, political speech, etc. Those are more functional than figurative, except perhaps political speech.

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