When my father is interacting with people who find out he is a doctor, he often hears, “I have a medical question for you.” My sister, an accountant gets, “I have a tax question for you.” I feel particularly bad for my brother-in-law, who is both an accountant and a lawyer and who probably not only has to field general tax and legal questions but the questions of people who are in legal trouble because of their taxes. But when people find out I’m an English teacher, they often say, “I have a grammar question for you.” Asking someone to give you free professional advice when they are not at work and just looking to enjoy casual conversation with their dry martini is, of course, total etiquette fail. But it gets even douchier when people want to tell me all about how they go ahead and correct other people’s grammar every chance they get. This happened with my new dentist, who, while digging around in my mouth with metal objects, regaled me with stories about how he calls people out–family members, friends, patients, probably also panhandlers with poorly copyedited signs–for using adverbs incorrectly. Adverb usage: apparently one of the Big Problems Today, along with oil rigs asploding in the Gulf and poverty and such. It’s like these people are part of a Douchebag Club and think they have recognized me as one of their own. To which I have this to say: I am not. I am not, in fact, proud of you for being a dick to the people around you. Now don’t get me wrong, I am sort of a dick sometimes, but this is one area of dickery I just don’t touch. I equate it to going around at a party criticizing everyone’s food and drink selection. No one likes that guy. We edge away from him and talk about him behind his back. Like food selections at parties, speech patterns are both a function of personal taste and what’s available to us. Not only is grammar correcting just plain rude, it’s soaked in classism, regional chauvinism, and privilege.
It bothers me that some people think that this is what I do all day: copyedit my student’s documents and then take my work home with me by copyediting conversations with family and friends. That sounds joyless. And stupid. What I really do is research American literature and religion because I find it fascinating. Then I teach my students about literature and religion and try to find ways to make it fascinating for them. I also attempt to teach them to do fabulous things with words, things that are full of joy, as well as insight, nuance, and gravitas. In short, I love my job, but grammar has precious little to do with it (“it” being both my job and why I like it).
Then I work a shift in the undergraduate Writing Center and remember why people think this. Students come in, red-eyed and care-worn saying stuff like, “I just want to talk about the grammar. My professor takes off a point for every grammar mistake, so it’s really important that you look at the grammar. Grammar grammar grammar.” That’s when I want to put my head down on the desk, or maybe set fire to it so they’ll have to evacuate the building and I can avoid talking about grammar. I realize that these professors still exist, and I kind of think they are akin to the devil. One came to talk to the Writing Center staff a couple of years ago. She was from the business school, not the English department, mind you. After she basically insulted us for half an hour by implying that this room full of people holding Master’s degrees were essentially there to corral wayward commas and semi-colons and intoning that–unlike writing in English–writing in Business is supposed to be clear and readable, a friend of mine said, “So basically my entire job is grammar and obfuscation.” So frantic business students pour into the Writing Center so that people with Master’s degrees can catch whatever got through Word Grammar Check. Get me some lighter fluid and a match. (I am being FIGURATIVE here, kids. I do not condone arson.)
This explains another reaction I often get from people who know I’m an English teacher: they tell me all about the horrible, loathsome teacher they had in high school and college who perpetually handed back papers covered in blood red ink and killed their confidence when it came to writing. Many of these people are old, lots of them quite successful in fields like engineering and computer science and medicine. So, I kind of want to say to them, “Ummmm, get over it already? Why do you feel the need to unload this decades-old experience on me?” But for real, some people have deep psychic scars associated with their high school or college English teachers, teachers who made them hate their native language thanks to a promiscuous red pen and a vendetta against split infinitives.
A big part of the problem, in my estimation is that we as a society–even the most overeducated among us–have a poor grasp of what grammar actually is and what role it plays in writing. So here it is: grammar is a set of standards that we as a linguistic group have agreed upon to help us understand one another. Those rules tend to be culturally and regionally specific and change over time. No one descended from a mountain with two stone tablets reading, “Though shalt not use a preposition at the end of a sentence.” Adhering to grammar guidelines is about making sure that you are understood. It’s also about self-presentation, but it’s not about adhering to some sort of moral code.
Grammar too often gets confused with what it is designed to produce, which is fluency. Fluency here is defined not just by your ability to speak or write in a particular language but by a certain facility with that language, the ability to make words do exactly what you want them to do, to make them sparkle and titillate and inspire, to not just say the right thing but to sound good doing it. And that may or may not include utilizing proper grammar. Often fluency means learning precisely when to follow the rules and when to break them, to tune the correctness of your usage to the expectations of your audience (idiom!). Or to use non-standard constructions for effect (Iseewhatyoudidthere). Fluency is the ability to say exactly what you mean exactly how you want, which is harder than it sounds.
Story time: yesterday, while I was in the midst of drafting this post, I had an encounter much like what I describe above, in which an acquaintance discovered that two people in our social gathering (myself and a middle school teacher) taught English. Suddenly, he was frothing at the mouth about how people who say “irregardless” are awful, horrible human beings. Apparently someone killed his cat while saying “irregardless” alot. To my surprise, other non-English teaching members of the group piled on, ranting on and on about the split infinitive in “to boldly go where no man has gone before” and how it peed in their breakfast cereal. Amused by the coincidence, I casually mentioned that I was writing a blog post about how much I don’t give a flying frack about whether or not people use proper grammar in casual conversation. The instigator then backtracked and said that it really wasn’t grammar that bothered him so much as people not saying precisely what they mean. Ok, I thought, that’s valid.
But now I’m having one of those moments in which, twelve hours after the fact, I’ve managed to formulate the perfect response, so I wish I had this guy’s phone number so that I could call him at work or something and say, “Then why didn’t you say exactly what you meant?!” That would show ‘em. Because here’s the thing: when we talk about problems with grammar, we’re often actually talking about problems with clarity or, to use the term I suggested before, fluency. I see this a lot in the Writing Center, when students bring in papers with negative grades and lots and lots of red ink. Instructors (often TA’s but sometimes professors too) will just write “grammar” in the margin next to an awkward or unclear sentence, sometimes next to a grammatically correct sentence. That’s the problem with talking about grammar all the time. Grammar is only one of the tools in a pretty big toolbox that helps us express ourselves effectively. And grammatical correctness is never a guarantee that we have done so. Academic writers (even writers with tenure) are often guilty of this. Yesterday, Amanda Hess of The Sexist, one of my favoritest bloggers, posted the first page of God’s Brain, a book written by the founder of “Male Studies,” who is named, I kid you not Lionel Tiger. You can’t make this stuff up. Here is how it starts:
The first impulse animating this book was simple if enchanted puzzlement about the remarkable difference between what the brain created about religion and the vast and long-lasting social systems that were the result. This is obviously an extraordinarily important aspect of human behavior that has to be understood as skillfully as possible. But we were troubled because so much of the public dialogue on the matter was beset by acidulous hostility from those opposed to religion on one loud and clamorous side. On the other, there was a self-confident certainty of both people and even governments about the need to quarantine the modes of faith from questions and from doubt.
Oh, you want me to stop now? There are four lights, you say? Okay, okay. That paragraph is technically grammatically correct, but it is excruciating to read because it is committing a number of other stylistic sins that have nothing to do with subject-verb agreement or the placement of punctuation.
1) Wordiness: Tiger is piling modifiers upon modifiers upon modifiers here. It’s like the man swallowed a Thesaurus and vomited it onto the page or like he was getting paid by the word and thus needed an adverb to modify every adjective. And I’m not just talking about “acidulous hostility” here. (Though in all seriousness, how great is that?) No, there are a lot of super boring modifiers in here too: “extraordinarily important” (Oh, well if it’s just important then I don’t care. Wait, extraordinarily important, you say?), “as skillfully as possible” (Can you understand something skillfully? I don’t think so.). He’s also redundant. Why does something have to be both “loud” AND “clamorous,” when clamorous by itself says exactly what he needs it to and is a perfectly interesting word on its own? Why is his “puzzlement” both “simple” and “enchanted?” Doesn’t “enchanted” on its own express the ironic bemusement he is trying to convey?
2) Cadence: Try reading this thing out loud. I am of the belief that reading is a kind of syn-aesthetic experience, that what we read with our eyes ought to be appealing to our ears as well. This is not. Cadence is what the kids these days would call “flow.” It’s what gives prose the quality of poetry or music. Ever read something that made you go, “Wow, that’s really beautiful?” Chances are it had something to do with how the writer establishes a rhythm and uses the tonal quality of words to enliven her point. The above paragraph is like a linguistic abortion. Instead of flowing, everything feels choppy, stopped short, disconnected. Instead of building on one another, these short modifying phrases actually stop the progress of the sentence and sort of bend it backward in some kind of syntactical contortion. You sort of lose track of where the sentence was going before it detoured from “simple” into “if enchanted” before finally arriving at “puzzlement.”
3) Parallel Structure: Tiger shuns parallel structure, so in addition to not sounding very pretty, relationships between ideas are lost. At the end of this paragraph, Tiger is presenting two opposing sides in a controversy and talking about how extremism on both sides stymies productive dialogue. Here’s how that starts: “But we were troubled because so much of the public dialogue on the matter was beset by acidulous hostility from those opposed to religions on one loud and clamorous side. On the other,” Okay wait. On the other what? Oooooooh, side. I see. The first few times I read this, the fact that he was comparing two sides of an issue sort of floated past me unnoticed. That first sentence suggests that public dialogue is being shut down due to angry, angry people who hate religion. The fact that this represents only one side of an entrenched debate is buried in there in another sea of adjectives. Thus, by the time we get to “On the other,” we’ve sort of missed the antecedent of “other.” In Ancient Greek, there is a word that essentially means “one the one hand…on the other hand” that has to be used in specific syntactical ways. This is so that each element in the comparison is given equal grammatical weight and the relationship between them is clear. Also, it just sounds better if you do it like that.
4) Clarity: What the hell is Tiger even saying? I recognize that academic prose is necessarily dense. We’re talking about complex theoretical ideas here. My point in this little digression isn’t that Tiger is using too many big words. I am totally going to use “acidulous hostility” in my next conference paper. It isn’t even that he is resorting to professional jargon. The problem is that he is allowing the overuse of mundane language to make the reading experience torturous. The stuff I just mentioned pulls us out of the reading experience and by focusing our energies on decoding the sentence rather than contemplating the ideas. Remember Pig Latin? It wasn’t at all difficult to translate, but your brain still had to work a little harder than usual to figure out what the precise words were, so it took you longer than usual to arrive at what the person meant. That’s sort of what this paragraph is like.
And what are the ideas? Carping on about how someone said something is often a way of refusing to engage with what they actually did say. It’s a derailing tactic that gets leveled against feminist bloggers all of the time. I won’t do that here.* Tiger is talking about the cognitive theory of religion, which states that religion is at least partially a product of neurological processes, a psychological “need” for faith that is programmed into our very DNA. It’s a fascinating theory. I actually work for a professor right now who does this stuff. In this first paragraph, Tiger is saying that it is difficult to separate religion as a product of our brains from the social institutions that influence the way religion is practiced. He is saying that broaching this topic is challenging because people’s opinions on religion, even in academia, tend to be very polarized. There are those who do not want us to talk about religion at all because they sort of wish it would go away, and there are those who want religion to be immune from academic scrutiny, which might call the truth claims of religion into question. He goes on to say, in the next paragraph, that many scholars and even academic presses shrink from engaging with or publishing this sort of work because of the controversy it engenders. Now that’s something I might be interested in reading about, if the prose weren’t so weighed down with stuff that usually gets excised from shitty first drafts.
As one of Hess’s commenters suggests, some of the reviews on Amazon are telling. While the book has a few positive reviews, the negative ones cite the ponderousness of the writing as a serious disappointment. In other words, they were all excited about reading this book until they encountered “enchanted puzzlement.” I can’t say much for Tiger’s theories on gender, but he seems to have important things to say in the field of the scientific study of religion. And that’s what makes this infuriating: not that Tiger has committed some atrocity upon the English language but that provocative ideas have been lost in a sea of extraneous fourth grade adjectives like “extraordinarily” and “loud.” It’s just all so unnecessary. And that, for me, is far more aggravating than “to boldly go” or “irregardless.” At least those words fairly effectively capture what the speaker means to say.
*In all fairness, Hess isn’t doing that either. She has repeatedly engaged with the way “Male Studies” has been framed as an answer to “Men’s Studies,” and if attacking his style is sort of ad hominem, then it’s merely in response to Tiger’s ad hominem accusation that she just hasn’t read his stuff. One shouldn’t have to read the entire body of someone’s scholarship, especially for someone as prolific as Lionel Tiger (still a funny name) in order to be qualified to critique their ideas on one particular subject.