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?

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Voila: Story no. 1

In 1828 Isidore married Miss Arabel Gumpert
So much clamor and noise was made by the by-standers
The murmuring swelled to a buzz
She had gazed at them with her heart beating in her throat

Behind her on a bright white wall was an old map
Yes, I said, I am afraid of being up high.
We entered
He was standing by the fireplace
She went up on her knees.
My lady grandmother knows all about us.
This was just the kind of thing she would have expected him to do
as the story progressed

The central cult object of Israel was a palladium called the Ark of the Covenant;
The other sects call them the History Monks.
There’s a time in infancy when they will take you in
O earth, what changes hast thou seen!
My lady takes this discharge like a wise woman
Not tonight; it’s a party, remember?

Damn you.
Nobody with any sense walks onto a strip of swaying planks stretched over a twenty-foot drop
A small black-and-white television parked atop a refrigerator:

I could feel Gazarra shrug over the phone line
We’ve just been somewhere elsewhere, I told her
But she was not her sister, nor his wife
So he determined to get the better of him.
Senneth glanced up at him.
I slipped through to the audience chamber
She let me wear them once, for an hour.

People were rarely sensible about anything
And here I sat a prisoner to a pack of petty thieves on a stinking ship.
No-one is arrested
What if I take too much?

We really must be off.

————–
—————

This turned out well, didn’t it?

I took the first phrase or clause of every submission, stripped out punctuation and added some back in, and then arranged things according to my fancy. Would somebody like to take this over next week?

My fourth grade teacher, Miss Lack, is Forever in the Building

I had a fourth grade teacher called Miss Lack. Imagine a young Mother Superior with a beehive instead of a wimple and habit. She had to be in her twenties, but that never occurred to us. She was scary.

She was also a good teacher. I first remember thinking about writing in her classroom, the elements that went into it, how a comma made a difference. Of course she was a product of her time, and she was a strict grammarian. One way and one way only to speak and write the language. We diagrammed sentences and labored over quotation marks.

Still today I think about Miss Lack when I hesitate over where a period goes. Even though her rules are now way out of date and new punctuation fashions are in place, I remember her rules. And when I see somebody using them, I’m torn between admiration and irritation.

Here’s the rule I still see used a lot and it drives me nuts because it’s so stilted:

Mary took her best friend, Louise Harrigan, out to lunch.

The old fashioned rule is: got two semantically equal noun phrases (friend=Louise), set the second one off with commas. Now I ask you, is this not awkward? Doesn’t it make you pause and think about, say, beehive hairdos intead of what Mary and Louise are talking about at lunch? It’s like a footnote stuck right up into the face of the story. But I see this a lot. I never, ever do it myself. I try to find a way to achieve the information without evoking Punctuation Parameters.

Mary took her best friend out to lunch. Louise was always in the mood for sushi, and she had no compunctions about gossip.

You can get the Harrigan part in there someplace in the scene, it doesn’t need to be right up front. At least not for fiction. I would make this same argument with a slightly different approach for creative non-fiction. It’s just awkward and silly and fourth-grade to stick to this better-introduce-the-character-to-the-reader approach.

Miss Lack taught me some very useful things, as well. For example, I credit her with the beginnings of my extreme dislike of excessive exclamation marks.

story in the spotlight

My own definition of good fiction is pretty simple. If a story pulls the reader in so successfuly that the words as individual entities no longer matter, it’s a success.

There are many factors that go into constructing fiction that can achieve that end. A simplistic list would be: character, plot, language. I’ve spent some time here talking about issues specific to one or another of these three cornerstones, and I’ll continue to do that, but just at this moment I wanted to say something about mechanics.

If the idea is that you want your reader to fall into the story, you need to avoid things that will interfere with that delicate process. Anything that draws attention to the mechanics of storytelling will work against you. Spelling, punctuation, the way the text looks on the page – these things are irrelevant to the story, but not to the experience of reading.

As a professor, I tried very hard to read first for content, regardless of how badly mechanics had been handled. I made the decision to do that because I didn’t want to discourage students who had something interesting or insightful or creative to say. There’s nothing worse for the creative process than a reader who refuses to really read. Imagine a kid bringing home a watercolor she is proud of, to have the parent’s first reaction be something like oh no, look at the poor quality paper you’re using. It’s a short sighted parent (or teacher) who focuses first on the mechanics.

In publishing, editors don’t want to be bothered with mechanics, and they have no patience with writers who take liberties. Most probably a masterpiece or two has been lost to the public because the manuscript was so riddled with mechanical problems that no editor would bother with it. So my simple rules for handling mechanics:

Spelling. Do not rely on your spell checker alone. Spell checkers get things wrong all the time. Make a list of problems that reoccur in your writing and double check for them. There are some kinds of errors that drive editors (and many other people) so absolutely crazy that you are well advised to triple check for them. I personally know people who seem to be capable of murder for the inappropriate use of an apostrophe in the word its. In order to save such over-caffeinated types from a case of the fits and give your manuscript a fighting chance, make sure that you don’t use it’s when its is called for.

Punctuation. You already know how I feel about exclamation points, those little daggers, those pox upon the nation. What you don’t realize is that some people, many of them editors, get worked up over things like serial commas and when to use a semicolon. You don’t have to look very far on the web to find raging arguments about punctuation, which says to me that some people have too much spare time, if that’s the best thing they can find to argue about. I absolutely refuse to be drawn into discussions about punctuation, although people have tried. Once a friend called me late at night to say, hey, you’ve got a PhD in linguistics, you can resolve this disagreement for us: is it the Jones’ house or the Jones’s house? To which I said, You dope. Go away and find something interesting to wake me up about. Puncutation, like bell bottoms and poofy hair, is a matter of fashion, and is constantly changing. Pick a way to do it, and be consistent. Your editor may not like it that way, but as long as you’re consistent you should be okay (until you run into a Copy Editor with an Attitude, but that happens down the line).

Form. This is the simplest part, but people tend to resist. When I teach creative writing I make clear on the first day that I want all work handed into me in exactly the same format: courier 12, one inch margins, double spaced, plain paper. No negotiation, no wiggle room. I have had undergraduates hang their heads in sorrow at the idea that they can’t show me the truth depth of their creativity by means of their font choice, and to them I say what I’m saying here: if you find yourself experimenting with fonts, you’re avoiding writing. Get back to it. Courier 12 is the only font I use in manuscripts, because it’s very legible. It’s the only font I’ll ever use in manuscripts. You may hate it, in which case you’ll pick another non-descript, very legible font and stick to it.

Finally, don’t confuse a well-formatted, clean, error-free manuscript with a story. Good mechanics — like a beautifully wrapped present — goes to waste if the box is empty.