The least interesting question about Edna Ferber

can't win an argument

I generally avoid the Grammarly blog because … well, if you’ve followed me for any amount of time, you probably know that I have a PhD in linguistics and I find nothing helpful or amusing in endless debates about where to put commas, and titles like this one:  5 Verb Mistakes You Should Stop Making Today make me break out in hives. Academic linguists are not prescriptive. We study language as it exists.  

This is not to say that Grammarly is without merit. It created a lucrative niche by coming up with software that evaluates written language and “corrects contextual spelling mistakes, checks for more than 250 common grammar errors, enhances vocabulary usage and provides citation suggestions.” It is a for-profit subscription service with a lot of subscribers. But they also post about language and writing more generally, and that’s the subject here.

There’s a post dated yesterday with the title 5 Authors Who Died Old Maids.

I am disturbed by this post for a whole slew of reasons. “Old Maid” strikes me as demeaning, to start, but the bigger problem is the premise. 

There is no real way to know about the personal lives of most 19th century women writers unless they made a public statement — and even then, there’s lots of room for debate. (And let me pose a question: do we need to know or is this garden-variety nosiness about famous people?)

Five authors, none of whom married. Should we assume that they would have liked to marry? That they were unhappy about never marrying?  That’s a leap I’m not prepared to take, primarily because there are unstated options. Today or in the 19th century a woman might marry for a lot of reasons — economics, family pressures, love — and she might never marry for even more. Unrequited love, certainly. But it should be obvious that some women aren’t (and were not) interested in marriage in the traditional sense. 

There’s no clear evidence regarding Edna Ferber’s sexuality, but Louisa May Alcott was pretty open about her attraction to women. From the introduction to Little Women (Penguin Classic edition) “… Alcott later commented with pre-Freudian candor on her own feelings: ‘I am more than half-persuaded that I am a man’s soul, put by some freak of nature into a woman’s body … Because I have fallen in love in my life with so many pretty girls and never once the least bit with any man.'”  

The post author states:

…plenty of female writers chose to stay single their entire lives. For these women, marital status had no bearing on their creativity.  

I’m not sure how to read that. Does she mean “For these women, staying single had no bearing on their creativity” ? If so, is the underlying assumption that married women are more (or less) free to pursue creative impulse? 

The bottom line is, I need to stay away from Grammarly. But I had to point out for my own peace of mind that women writers in the 19th century were just as complicated as women are today. Whether or not they married is possibly the least interesting thing about them as individuals. 

grammaticality: not your every day definition

There are a lot of weblogs out there that are focused entirely on helping people keep … weblogs. How to maintain a blog, how to write an article, how to promote what you’re doing so you get more visitors. I don’t often take the time to keep up with this particular kind of blog, but then somebody sent me a link to a post.  The evocative title: Are bloggers and blogs ruining the English language?

What irritates me about this kind of discussion is the failure to distinguish between (a) written and spoken language;  (b) grammar and punctuation; and (c) form and function.

A.  The tyranny of the written word is such that we give it authority over the spoken language. Which is, if you think about it, not very logical. We write things that tax our ability to remember, or to project our thoughts through time and space. We speak everything else. But (I hear you ask) aren’t they the same thing, just as water is water whether it  flows, or freezes so that we can walk on it? Isn’t it just a matter of presentation? Can’t speech and  writing be treated as different manifestations of the same mental phenomenon? Wouldn’t spoken language be more efficient if we treated it like written language?

Continue reading “grammaticality: not your every day definition”

Miss Lack, Noam Chomsky, autopsies

Preface: Noam Chomsky is not in need of a post mortem. He’s alive and well and will live (I hope) for many more productive years.

Yesterday at a short meeting, I ran into someone I know through the Girlchild. She mentioned to me that she was reading Homestead and really liking it, which of course is always lovely to hear. Then she said that she had come across a sentence that she couldn’t diagram.

My first reaction: sheer panic. Please, I said, tell me you’re not hoping I’ll remember the sentence.

Luckily that wasn’t what she was trying to get at. She meant that she thought the sentence worked, but didn’t understand its structure.

Pause here for a flashback to my fourth grade classroom, Miss Lack with her beehive hairdo, and the blackboard where we learned to diagram sentences the old fashioned way. I liked taking sentences apart to see how they work, and I was good at it. In fact, Miss Lack was the first teacher to give me the idea that I was good at writerly things.

Now forward in time to graduate school and Chomskyan syntax, where taking a scalpel to a sentence had a different purpose — and was interesting for more complex reasons.

And back again to the here and now.

When I’m writing a story, I never, ever diagram a sentence. I just don’t think that way. Storytelling glides along on another plane, and wants nothing to do with dissecting noun phrases and subordinate clauses. Thus: I would have been happy to let this conversation drift away to be forgotten, but then this friend did email the sentence in question.

Now I feel obliged to reply (Catholic schoolgirl automatic response no. 23). So I looked at it, the sentence in isolation. That is, here is the sentence, taken out of the warm nest of the story and pinned to the electronic autopsy table:

When she looked at the available men in Rosenau, Wainwright’s Katharina could see no promise in any of them but of children and farm work, things that interested her not in the least.

Against my better judgment, ignoring the voice in my head screaming PROCRASTINATION, I looked at this sentence, which really is composed of three sentences draped over and around each other in cozy comaraderie. For a moment I considered trying to locate the old software that allowed me to produce a classic tree diagram ala transformational grammar, but that way lies madness. Or at least OS X 9, a place I never go these days.

So instead, a completely ad hoc approach that would satisfy neither Miss Lack nor Professor Chomsky. The three sentences:

1. She ||looked || (at the available men) (in Rosenau).
(transform into a relative wh-clause)
2. WK || could see || no promise (in any ((of them)))
|| [promise of] (children*) (farm work*)
3. Things* interested her {negation strategy}.
(transform into subordinate clause)

After this I’ll I have to spend some time putting the poor thing back together and tucking it back into the story.

prepositional phrases

Here’s one of the little tricks I use when I’m editing or critiquing fiction or creative non-fiction for a friend:

Judge each prepositional phrase with no mercy in your heart.

I have had students whose work bristled with excess prepositional phrases, veritable hedgehog paragraphs that gave even courageous readers the prickles. For some reason, the worst prepositional phrase excesses tend to congregate at the caboose of the sentence. It’s as if the writer just can’t separate himself from the newly hatched thought and must stick around and pet it for a while, dressing it up just a little more before he moves on to the next thought.

My guess is that you could pick up most novels, almost any novel you’ve got hanging around and find occasional paragraphs that are infested and need treatment. Now, I am not a minimalist. I can appreciate the occasional Raymond Carver story, but in general, I don’t get the urge to reread them. So this isn’t me telling you to cut cut cut every word you can possibly do without, and some you can’t. I like prose, I like description but still: every word has to earn its place in the sentence.