It’s common among the literati to carry around a bunch of grammar gurus, like¹ Erykah Badu’s Bag Lady. Usually you’ll find some mix of H. G. Fowler, E. B. White and Quiller-Couch, and perhaps some volume-by-committee such as The Chicago Manual of Style or Hart’s Rules. I personally used to follow Fowler. I would read from his The King’s English almost every day. I enjoyed it only moderately, but I assumed it was a mandatory part of the writer’s daily diet and exercise. I boxed like a fiend with Fowler in my corner. I’d beat you down for any latent coordination of relative clauses, or any fused participle.
A funny thing happened early this decade. I realized I was in a quagmire and became disillusioned. I’ve learned to make linguistic love, not war. My attitude towards prescriptive grammarians has become “kiss my that-which-abusing, colon-and-semicolon-using, passive-voice-embracing arse, bitches!”
This article is a continuation of “Tongue of Warcraft, Part One”. Warning: that prior installment is very likely to offend sensitive readers. This one perhaps less so.
Les mots de la tribu
(The tribe’s words)
Blame it on dictionaries. I’m also a born dictionary geek. My parents, uncles and aunts still love to tell stories of how I read dictionaries as a child. I carry my preferences among dictionaries every bit as pugnaciously as I did my preferences among grammarians. I quickly found at the top of my leader-board the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (SOED) and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (AHD). There was something particularly neat about AHD. Sprinkled among the very clear and expansive definitions were notes from a usage panel, and these notes were less about scolding people for language sins, and more about recording observations of language in natural usage. That was my introduction to the descriptive study of grammar.
It took a while for my conversion though. I was still carrying my Fowler stick around for years while enjoying the subversive insights of AHD. Then I heard Geoffrey Nunberg on NPR’s Fresh Air telling irresistible stories of language in its natural habitat, offering scant patience for the cadre of grammar bullies who are much quicker with a “THOU SHALT NOT” than they ever are with a truly fresh insight on language³. I soon learned that Nunberg was a long-standing member of the AHD usage panel (he’s now its chair), and the pieces started to fall in place quicker⁴ than hoplites into a phalanx.
Blame it on Hip-Hop. It was the breaks and break-dancing that drew me in, but once the likes of The Juice Crew, Ultramagnetic, KRS-One and Rakim came on the scene, I began to understand for the first time in my life just how rich African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) is. I used to ridicule AAVE as surely as any California school board member before I started to pay attention to what was going on in Golden Age Hip-Hop lyrics. I’ve spent a lot of time studying the rhetorical schools overlapping the Elizabethan era, and their Renaissance founts in France and Italy. It became apparent to me that the Hip-Hop generation world-wide is revolutionizing language every bit as effectively as the great upheavals that brought us Chaucer, Shakespeare and company. They so clearly occupy a different orbit, a higher state of excitation than the likes of Fowler, an orbit that can’t be reached by meek adherence to unimaginative rules.
Hip-Hop is no more than the most prominent manifestation of a youth movement that effectively meant that the tribes aggregated by the great 19th and 20th century empires (Britannia, France, the U.S….) were finally taking over those empires and re-making them in their own image. The same thing happened to the tribes who took the Roman and Byzantine empires by the scruff of their necks centuries ago, and started the process towards the grammar harpy’s received linguistic wisdom.
But while Rome is burning, the grammar nannies are busy balling up their knickers over angels dancing on pinheads⁵. The language they think they’re protecting is dying. It’s changing at an astonishing pace It became very obvious to me that anyone with any gifts with language can much more profitably deploy those gifts describing these prodigious changes than focusing on the useless court rites of the aristocracy. Right now the aristocrats are in the tumbrels on their way to Madame Guillotine.
So what, you? You want beef, right? You think I’m just a music fan who overstates the influence of a genre? It’s worth taking a glance at the home country of Madame Guillotine. Right turn, Clyde.
L’Académie française me fait chier
(Literally: The French Academy makes me shit)
And as usual, when it comes to revolutions, those French (Gauls, if you prefer, Roman) are ahead of the game. They’re also ahead of the game when it comes to bureaucracy. In the U.K and U.S. the grammar constabulary is led by any buffoon who can write a book and convince enough copy-editors to mistake it for The Bible. In France, they don’t mess about with such a scrap. L’Académie française will tell you how to use the language, and you will thank them for it, mon enfant.
L’Académie is a pretty slow-turning battleship. As British economic power, and Hollywood’s golden age battered their way into French culture, birthing Franglais, L’Académie turned slowly to meet this threat. In the mid-90s L’Académie was still screeching “stop saying ‘[l’]e-mail’. Say ‘[le] courriel’! DAMMIT! ‘[le] courriel’!” And while the battleship was firing broadsides to the north, a sly little pirate cruiser scudded in from the south and just about annihilated the juggernaut. The little cruiser took the form of a French rap group called NTM (renamed from “Nique Ta Mere”—”Fuck your Mother” so a few more retailers might innocently stock their music). NTM was every bit as brash and nasty as the U.S. Rap groups Dionne Warwick was contemporaneously excoriating in front of Congress (“That little boy Snoop Dogg can’t even spell ‘ho'”), but they tapped into youth culture just as effectively, and one of the things they did was to popularize a form of French argot, Verlan, which is somewhat along the lines of Pig Latin, but much more sophisticated.
Verlan was originally an obscure slang by ghetto youth to confuse the police (compare how so much Cockney slang originated as a way to throw off Old Bill). Crucially, Verlan distorted words from the downtrodden Arabic and Roma population just as happily as it did high French. It was truly a middle finger to the establishment (including L’Académie which had a lot of power over what a student could say in school without facing sanction) by the same disaffected masses who rarely got any attention until the riots of 2007. By the time of those riots, state politicians such as Sarkozy were busy railing against the physical destruction of the “racaille” (“contemptible rabble”) while politicians of language were stunned in their impotence.
Verlan would, thanks to NTM, work its way into the casual speech of almost all classes. Right now among many French even up to their mid-Thirties you hear “la femme” and “l’homme” (“the man”, “the woman”) not much more often than you hear “la meuf” and “le mec”, the Verlan equivalents. It is truly to the point that you can’t claim to be learning French without learning at least some Verlan. Verlan and other forms of argot are changing French so surely that no one would be crazy enough to underestimate the upheaval initiated by a potty-mouth troupe of French rappers.
Oh, and L’Académie française? Really, they don’t know what hit them.
Much like our favorite Anglophone grammar nannies.
Get out the Bastille, before the mob gets here!
Are you one of those who runs around with a marker to edit grocery store lines to say “fewer than 10 items”)? Do you jab at Trekkie friends over Roddenberry’s infamous split infinitive (“to boldly go”)? Do you think that only Winston “up with which I will not put” Churchill is worthy of ending a sentence with a preposition? Do you either wince or cower at any stop other than a comma or period? Well, you might not know it, but you’re about to be run the fuck over. Put that style manual down and back slowly away.
I know it’s not easy. Let me help. First of all, it does not make you a better writer.
You can write well while violating every rule in your favorite manual. And you can write poorly while doing the same. Good writing is not about rules, but about self-expression. You are not Mr. Fowler or Mr. Quiller-Couch, so it’s rarely a good idea to mimic their prejudices. Prejudices are not in themselves bad. I’ll admit, I do prefer to use “fewer” with countable nouns. I do tend to avoid fused participles. But those are matters of personal taste. Little squibs of what makes Uche, Uche. The folly would be for me to impose that taste on everyone else. The very idea should be just as silly as the idea of imposing taste in dress upon everyone else.
The personal tastes of high priest grammarians who managed to dupe masses of writers and editors into drinking the Guyana kool-aid are not necessarily better than mine, nor yours. Actually, in the case of some, such as E.B. White, your own instincts are almost always going to be better than those of the putative master. White was remarkably stupid in his prescriptions. William Strunk is not completely off the hook, but it’s White who took something moderately bad and made it atrocious.
I find it very interesting that so many politicians of language venerate Shakespeare. It would be very brave (and foolish) to use much Shakespeare as an example to prescribe language prejudices. Shakespeare was happy to spell the same word three different ways in the same act (heck, he was even careless with the spelling of his own name). He used punctuation in ways that would reduce a modern editor to shell-shock. Shakespeare actually derived much of his evocative power from the very things grammar harpies rail about. Mixed metaphors? Latin words over Anglo-Saxon? Refusal to omit “needless” words? The passive voice? Shakespeare reveled in all of them.
Oh that’s done it, has it? That’s a low blow, isn’t it? The referee should give me a warning, should he? Well, I’m not backing down. Take your best beloved Shakespeare play in one hand (and don’t try to cheat with Lamb’s Tales, or anything) and your best beloved grammar bible in the other. I dare you. I do not lie.
Let me preëmptively⁶ warn off the straw-man-seeking Quixotes. Mind you, I’m not claiming that any hack grammar rebel can stand up with Shakespeare. I’m not suggesting his full range of license is available to every writer. Shakespeare pulled off high-wire feats of language that only someone with his incredible abilities could manage. It’s not that you should never try the pyrotechnic stunts you see on TV. It’s just that before you do, you’d better have some talent, and you’d better be ready to put in the years of training.
The barrier to license, however, is not as high as grammar nannies would have you believe. You’d better be a master to attempt:
Up from my cabin, My sea-gown scarf'd about me, in the dark Groped I to find out them; had my desire.
But any Jack or Jenny can use a colon to set up two clauses in contrast, or to make one clause a presentation of an idea in another, as Shakespeare does in almost every other verse. Doing so will not spoil your writing. Nor will mixing up “which” or “that”, and respective use of comma, in most cases. Most people fluent in English will be able to tell the few cases where mixing such things up does truly sound odd. Most of the time people think such things lead to poorer writing because they’ve been trained to think so. Because some snarling Pavlov of a teacher in grammar school (or even in the MLA program) whacked them on the head with a ruler until they became sensitized to the supposed (but actually imaginary [and take that “actually”, Fowler! Smell it! Smell it! Now take it!]) evils of the passive voice.
The bottom line is that if actuarial counting of stops and parts of speech were the measure of good writing, you would expect the very best writing to at last approximate the supposed standards. It doesn’t take a lot of examination, even if you don’t start with Shakespeare, to determine that this is not the case. It shouldn’t take much more reflection for a writer to accept that there is no useful basis for grammatical programming.
Speaking of prejudice
Clearly AAVE has always been controversial in linguistic circles. One of the highlights of the “Ebonics” debate was the parade of specious examples by white knight defenders of maiden English illustrating how AAVE supposedly dumbs down language to fit lazy skulls (yes, these blowhards recycled their ridicule of “If it didn’t fit you must acquit”). What I learned when I started paying attention was just the opposite. AAVE generally complicates and enriches the rules of grammar, which is to be expected from the remnant of a patois that incorporates elements of a lot of foreign languages, and conventions of minor dialects. The same is true of Verlan.
My own prejudice in language is against developments that reduce expressiveness. I lament the dying of the subjunctive mood, and I’m very happy that even the mighty Strunk and White haven’t made a dent in the passive voice. I deplore the widespread confusion of “hoard”/”horde”, “home”/”hone”, “pour”/”pore”, et cetera because I fear the forfeiture of words. I have a strong antipathy towards business-speak, because a lot of it feels to me a reduction of expression to formula (buzzword bingo). Yes, this is just my prejudice. It does not have to be yours.
I find it interesting to map this prejudice against the idea of prescriptive linguistics. Prescriptivism generally reduces the range of expression. The writer starts with a strong sentence that expresses his own [we’ll get to that “his” in the next article] personality, and the unique shape of that creative moment. Then the writer realizes that his grammar school teacher would have demanded that he move this clause over here, and change that tense or voice to this other thing, and soon enough, the sentence has lost much of its original flavor.
And this is why I don’t just shake my head and walk away when I encounter grammar harpies. This is why I’m only too ready to jump into the ring with them. This is why if I ever run into H.G. Fowler or E.B. White in the afterlife, St. Peter had better be quick with the peace porridge. These pets-de-loup grammar queens are not harmless. Their books are responsible for scaring many good writers into vapidity. I’m happy that rapper Kid Cudi, who was expelled and did not complete high school, can express himself so freely and eloquently, but prejudiced as I am towards education, it infuriates me that so many people go in for a University degree and come out as tins of intellectual jelly, beaten to a pulp with rules that serve no useful purpose.
At least the problem is a temporary one. Language is changing at such a pace that today’s grammar apostles will be trivia questions even within MLA programs in another decade or so. And for future observers, the emergence of Fowlers and Whites of Verlan and whatever evolves from American English will be a sure sign that the next cycle of language is itself changing. Writers are at an exciting time right now. We have the opportunity to participate in the purification of the dialects of the emerging tribes. Information technology offers us an increment in reach at least as dramatic as the great leap of the printing press. The only obstacles to the stage are the shells of language politicians. It’s about time to round them up and push their tumbrels towards La Guillotine. That’s their inevitable destination, anyway.
Those volumes look slim, but they’re two ton loads on your back, and deep down you probably recognize that. Lay down your prescriptive burdens. You’ll feel much better. Trust me. No? OK trust Erykah Badu.
Bag lady you gon’ hurt your back
Dragging all them bags like that
I guess nobody ever told you
All you must hold on to
Is you, is you, is you…
¹ Someone trained to spot imaginary confusions from usage might claim here that the preposition “like” could introduce an example of the “gurus” or could introduce an simile for the behavior. Anyone who has any idea what a bag lady is (even if you’re not up on the subject of the allusion, Erykah Badu’s metaphor) will have no idea understanding the right interpretation to be the latter. If you’re a recovering Fowler-head, anyway, you’ll know he insists that the former usage would have to be “such as”, not “like”. If you still have this affliction the following formula is the best treatment, uttered every time “like” slips from your fingers—Eat me, Fowler:² I use “such as” when I think it sounds better.
² Grammar nannies will decry that colon. Eat me too [spot the imaginary confusion]. I shall find apposition wherever it suits my taste to find apposition, and the use of colons to separate such appositives is well attested. Moreover, it does nothing to reduce the quality of the sentence. Nothing.
³ And yes, Fowler would love to box me over several characteristics of this sentence, but I now say to Fowler: bring it on, punk! I’ll ring your bell f’sho”. Of far more interest is the Weblog maintained by Geoffrey Nunberg and colleagues. Language Log is a delight of linguistic discovery and discussion, and it delights in popping the balloons of grammar harpies. Geoffrey Pullum, one of the Language Loggers recently caused a ruckus by writing an article “50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice” in The Chronicle of Higher Education to mark the 50th anniversary of The Elements of Style.
⁴ No I don’t feel like a “more quickly” just now, mmkay?
⁵ I’ll mix metaphors to my own bloody taste, and I’ll rhyme anyone to death if they’ve got something to say. King Kong ain’t got shit on me!
⁶ I do enjoy that archaism, and yes, I’m overall quite an amateur⁷ of archaisms.
⁷ That particular sense of “amateur” is becoming an archaism, and it pains me to watch this happen.
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