Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Dinner, Daleks, and Disdain: Confessions of a Recovering Grammar Nazi

Some friends of mine and I recently got to talking about grammar.

Now, then, the backstory, because you didn't react with shock and horror like you should have.

The people in this friend group are all young writers to one degree or another--that is to say, we've all been published somewhere, we all love putting words together, and we're all pretty capable when it comes to stringing sentences on a page. Put more efficiently, for most of us, English was our standout subject in high school and, in general, we're pretty peacockish about that. So, when I say we "talked" about grammar, what I mean is that we argued (eloquently) about grammar. If not for the fact that it was on Facebook, there would probably have been shouting, angry words, misunderstandings, walkouts, and hurt feelings.

However, because it was on Facebook, there was no shouting. So that's kind of a victory, I guess.

To an extent, the whole thing was a little silly. It started out with a funny post about how one of us wanted to graduate from Grammar Nazi to Grammar Dalek (Daleks are robots, as far as I understand, with no understanding of pity or remorse. Wiki it). It was frivolous and entertaining and not really intended to spark a debate about the purpose of grammar and language.

But, well, it did.

In general we landed on two sides of the debate, which I will stoop to naming the Purist view and the Pragmatist view.

The Purist stands by the Law of Grammar as it is; we have rules for a reason, after all, and even the ones that seem arbitrary exist for a purpose. They're often proponents of "perfect grammar," as it were, sometimes at the expense of smooth communication. Pros: often experts in the Law of Grammar, or at least believe themselves to be. Cons: will occasionally sacrifice communication and/or reputation for the sake of being right.

The Pragmatist acknowledges that the Law of Grammar exists but doesn't care as much about it as the Purist does. If he thinks he can communicate better by splitting an infinitive, gosh darn it, that infinitive had better prepare to be split. Pros: communication serves as his highest goal, and the Law of Grammar is something to understand and know but not necessarily bow to. Cons: human judgment is fallible, and what seems clear to the Pragmatist writer can often be unclear to a reader.

(To the initiated, a Purist is Lawful Good; a Pragmatist is Chaotic Good. Geek out.)

If I have to pick one, I'm a Pragmatist. That's a pretty drastic change, in fact, because for most of my high school career I was profoundly Purist. Anyone unlucky enough to share an English class with me in high school can testify that I knew the rules, I knew them well, and I was proud of it. That's been the case for a long, long time; my mom quickly grew to watch everything she said around me, lest she slip up and be corrected. (Fun fact: my most often-used word growing up was "actually.")

That is to say, folks, that while growing up I was an unabashed Grammar Nazi (sort of like this. Beware egregious gore in the last five seconds). I called out people in real life, in papers, and on the Internet. I could recite to you a number of the most common errors and misconceptions propagated in the common folk by lazy speakers and writers. (Still can, probably.) I learned everything I could about the snares and pitfalls of the English language, and learned them well enough to argue them with far more qualified, far more intelligent people.

In short, though I was not yet the best, I was determined to become it.

The consequences were not profound enough for me to care, although in hindsight they loom larger. I would take potshots at people for nearly-perfect (but not quite) sentences. Friends learned to glance at me while they spoke, knowing that if they slipped my face would visibly twitch. I deleted a number of Facebook statuses and comments because I was terrified someone would notice that I'd transgressed against a finicky rule, or forgotten a comma, and that with that failure I would lose my credibility--my pedestal, my high horse, my unassailable mountain of impeccability.

I took great pride in my ability to snipe the pettiest of errors.

Run-on sentence? Guess you're not good enough for my friendship. Malapropism? You're just not cutting it, sweetheart. Semicolons in dialogue? Too bad, you're a failure. Split an infinitive? DIE FOUL HEATHEN.

It wasn't just pride. My grammar sharpshooting became my worth. It was my identity. Whatever else I might have been--friend, son, writer, musician--I produced clean copy. I could self-edit. I was awesome.

Long story short...the times, they are a'changin'.

Because writing, you see, is like serving a dinner. The host, the writer, wants the guests/readers to be able to enjoy the food/writing in the best way possible. For that purpose, mankind devised grammar rules--etiquette to govern the dinner, so that no one's toes are stepped upon and no one's honor impugned. And as time went on, more and more rules developed--rules that, in most cases, were necessary.

But the struggle came when some of those rules became, inexplicably, immortal. An unfortunate necessity in one age became an arbitrary requirement in the next, and on and on until, if we're not careful, we can't see the food for all the forks in the way.

Grammar still matters, of course. Many of the rules are still relevant today--it's equally poor manners to punch your dinner guest these days as it was when polite dinners were invented. (Although an argument could be made that it was more acceptable back then.) But even though it's necessary to know the rules, it is not imperative that we always follow them. This is one of my favorite Chestertonian paradoxes: once you have learned a thing, you must unlearn it. The rules become, eventually, a crutch, or worse, if all we can do is follow them blindly. That is not their function.

Rules exist so we may see the shape of the purpose; they're training wheels, bone splints, guiders for the ship at sea. And eventually, they must be removed--but not so we can break them needlessly. The purpose, once freed, retains its shape. But, with the laws removed--as our lodestar but no longer our rudder--the world is open to us. We can do anything. We're free to move about on the wide, wide sea, knowing all we do in the profound and intimate way of a sailor on the open tide.

We're no longer bound. What once we called a wall, we see now for a doorway into worlds untold.