Thursday, August 11, 2011

Grammar with Grace.

It shouldn't come as a surprise that I'm a bit of a grammar snob. But I'm the worst kind of grammar snob...I'm the selective kind. I keep a little gig on the side editing magazine articles. Most of them usually appear to have been written by high-school drop-outs who never understood the premise of a thesis statement and the five-paragraph essay construction well enough to take liberties with it.
But let's be honest, I prefer a good clear-cut grammatical slaughter, whipping through pages on my Mac with the track changes hidden so I don't feel too guilty about the amount of re-wording, re-arranging, and re-writing that I've inflicted upon someone's editorial offerings. The time it takes to painstakingly remove unnecessary prepositions from the ends of sentences, re-align arguments so that they make sense, and edit out the senseless side comments of writers who think they're being clever but are really just being daft is a FERRIS WHEEL RIDE compared to facing an article with an unctuous, unnatural, self-conscious style. I'll stare at a single sentence for an hour thinking to myself, "Why in the hell did you decide to say it like THAT?"
The thing is, when I first started as a copy-editor, I was under the false impression that all writers should have passed Mrs. Papp's Freshman Year Honors English Class at St. Pius X Catholic High School, and, additionally, that all grammatical rules were hard and fast. Lord, I was so ignorant.

Four years later, when I edit, I'm looking for that fine balance of reasonable grammatical execution, clear constant style, contextualized voice, and a minimum of total bullshit. Every article is an adventure.

Anyway, I recently picked up Lynne Truss's Eats, Shoots & Leaves from the library, having toyed with reading it for about three years now. It's brilliant. In fact, here; judge for yourself:

Taking the marks we have examined so far, is there any art involved in using the apostrophe? No. Using the apostrophe correctly is a mere negative proof: it tells the world you are not a thicko. The comma, while less subject to universal rules, is still a utilitarian mark, racing about with its ears back, trying to serve both the sense and the sound of the sentence - and of course wearing itself to a frazzle for a modest bowl of Chum. Using the comma well announces that you have an ear for sense and rhythm, confidence in your style and a proper respect for your reader, but it does not mark you out as a master of your craft.

But colons and semicolons- well, they are in a different league, my dear! They give such lift! Assuming a sentence rises into the air with the initial capital letter and lands with a soft-ish bump at the full stop, the humble comma can keep the sentence aloft all right, like this, UP, for hours if necessary, UP, like this, UP, sort-of bouncing, and then falling down, and then UP it goes again, assuming you have enough additional things to say, although in the end you may run out of ideas and then you have to roll along the ground with no commas at all until some sort of surface resistance takes over and you run out of steam anyway and then eventually with the help of three stop. But the thermals that benignly waft our sentences to new altitudes – that allow us to coast on air, and loop-the-loop, suspending the laws of gravity – well, they are the colons and semicolons.

-Lynne Truss,

Eats, Shoots & Leaves, UK edition, Chapter 3

See what I mean? What JOY! To discover that, to at least an elite few, language is more than just a skin-and-bones method of communication. It is an art form. Being a writer is like being a composer, deciding how the construction of the text will affect the reader's perception of the message. The rhythm, the lift, the pause... and this is just covering what the commas and semicolons and colons can do, never mind the intensity of parallel construction, or the gravity and finality of a short, definite sentence after a long, ambling, descriptive one. It's good!

Did you KNOW that punctuation was given life by Greek play writes and Medieval monks tripping out biblical text? That, in its original form, it was more than simply utilitarian? It was integral to the meaning, the meditation, the effect of the words.

Whatever happened?

I know that the Society of Grammar-Obsessed Sticklers has low membership. If you're reading this and you're a card-carrying member, or even a friend, I salute you. If you've never given a thought to grammar beyond the occasional fleeting moment to ponder over the purpose of that key under your right pinky, I say this: Grammar is about flow. It's about cadence, and meaning, and interpretation. Don't stress yourself out over it, but respect it as you would the school of aerodynamic thought: you may never understand it, but it is oh so very useful.

Long live the Oxford Comma.

1 comment:

  1. LOVE your last post-I could use the positivity!! And thank you so much for recommending that wonderful, WONDERFUL book-oh my, it was beautiful! It did indeed remind me of I Capture The Castle, one of my all-time favourite books. I've read it to pieces over the years-it's just perfect! Also, it was great to read this post. I've been lucky in that I've always had an inbuilt ability to sense correct grammar and spelling [maths, art, sports... not so much, but that I can do!!], but even so, reading other people's work physically pains me sometimes-all the terrible glaring mistakes!! Do they not read?! I don't understand how you can't notice that it looks and reads all wrong! Aarg! Rant over ^^ But I'm glad someone feels the same way. In fact, I'd love to go into publishing and editing books one day. xxx