Tag Archives: Fluency

Why I’m Not Proud of You For Correcting Other People’s Typos

Cover for The Great Typo HuntAfter the title of the blog, the number one Google search that brings people to this site is some variant of the question:  “Is there a name for people who correct other people’s grammar?”  Well, in a professional setting, we call them copy editors.  When they are correcting your adverb usage at cocktail parties, we call them douchebags.  When they are traveling the United States correcting typographical errors on signs, I guess we can now call them published authors. When I first saw the Salon interview of Jeff Deck and Benjamin Herson, authors of The Great Typo Hunt, I had every intention of reading the book in its entirety and reviewing it for this blog, but all signs are pointing to that not happening anytime soon.  I do, however, have thoughts about said interview, the project itself, and the blog on which it is based, so I am going to comment generally here and delve into the finer points once my schedule clears up a bit.

In the wake of this post (which remains the top post on this blog more than two months later–go figure), I think I’ve been labeled by some as a kind of devil-may-care descriptivist when it comes to language.  I am a descriptivist, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t think that the spelling and grammar rules we have agreed upon as a linguistic group aren’t worth anything.  They help us understand one another, and I do actually think it is worthwhile to strive for fluency (which is NOT the same thing as grammatical correctness), especially if your livelihood depends on written communication.  Avoiding typos and improper usage (as well as needlessly tortured sentence structures and opaque jargon) bespeaks professionalism and pride in one’s work.  I have worked as a copy editor before and am actually pretty damn good at it.

But I am led to ask the following question:  why would anyone take a cross-country trip for the sole purpose correcting typos when they are not being paid to do so?  Furthermore, why are so many people ready to give these guys medals for doing so?  Why is it that some feel that usage errors are a Huge Social Problem in need of fixing, and why do some also seem to feel that they are a kind of personal affront?  Let’s take the precipitating event of Deck’s project, described here by the Salon interviewer:

In November of 2007, Jeff Deck encountered a sign that would change his life. He had just returned from his five-year college reunion at Dartmouth College, embarrassed by his lack of accomplishment in life, when, walking near his apartment in Somerville, Mass., he encountered a sign that had already stopped him in his tracks multiple times: “Private Property: No Tresspassing.” The extra “s” in the sign had, as he puts it, long been “a needle of irritation” — but now something had changed: He felt the urgent need to correct it.

There is, needless to say, a lot going on there, and the interviewer seems to have cannily hinted at the insecurities that may have informed Deck and Herson’s epic journey:  the sense that degrees in the arts and humanities (Deck was a creative writing major) have  lost their relevance, the reality that even elite educations do not guarantee work that is both remunerative and soul satisfying, and, perhaps, the usual quarter-life crisis, the late twenties malaise that sets in when one realizes that one has not yet Made a Difference or even come close to achieving what one set out to do senior year in college.

At bottom, though, I think the impulse to correct proceeds from Rule-Follower Angst:  you have done everything (or everything that counts) right and have not been rewarded in the way you expected.  The wicked still prosper.  Out there, people are breaking the rules and getting away with it. On some level, the correcting impulse is about Being Right and making sure that people know it, and as snotty as this paragraph is, I sort of understand it.  But I also understand that this sort of behavior tends to drive people away, and for good reason.  And as the interviewer rather amusingly notes, there are often problematic privilege differentials at work:

It can seem pretty condescending to be correcting typos, in particular when a lot of the people responsible for them are probably immigrants still learning English.

I think the capacity for cruelty is just too much when you’re going after people writing in English as their second language — my French would be lucky if it were at that level of semi-comprehensibility — so we tried to stay away from those. But even with that aside, socioeconomics are definitely a factor to consider and we had to be sensitive to that.

Especially given that you’re two white guys with university education.

Heh.  To their credit, Deck and Herson seem to be sensitive to their positionality and to the educational deficiencies that wanton mis-spellings and eggcorns can betray.  It’s just that when it comes to their assessment of how exactly the educational system is failing some people, they seem to be rather aggressively missing the point:

Over the past several decades, there’s been a definite move away from phonics-based education in spelling and grammar — which ties the sight and sound of words very closely together — toward what’s sometimes called the “whole word method,” which is based more on the sight of words. With phonics you learn to sound out the parts of each word and then put them together, instead of the guesswork that’s involved in the “whole word” approach.

There was an interesting book that my co-author Benjamin discovered as we were on our typo hunt, called “Why Johnny Can’t Read,” from around 1955. The author talked about some of the most common types of errors out there, like double-letter confusion: “timming” instead of “timing,” and “shiping” instead of “shipping.” It had this whole list of common typos, and a lot of them were the same ones we saw on this trip.

T-shirt that reads:  Hookt on Fonix Werkt Fer Me!There’s a lot of fail in these two paragraphs.  First of all, I guess both authors were living under a rock for the duration of the 90’s and never saw the T-shirt to the left.  Actually, that’s a cheap shot, but I couldn’t resist.  In fact, there is substantial evidence that an education that includes Phonetic Awareness Instruction is more effective at teaching children to read and spell than education that excludes it.  The problem is that Deck and Herson have deputized a book from 1955 into their argument.  Their answer suggests that Rudolf Flesch’s observations in Why Johnny Can’t Read were completely ignored at mid-century, when in fact that text was very successful.  Phonics did re-enter the standard curriculum and wasn’t really challenged until the “whole language” approach was introduced in the 1980’s.  Even then, phonics has never dropped out of elementary school curricula entirely, as this has been a contentious subject in pedagogical and linguistic circles ever since, with a comprehensive review of studies on the subject only having been conducted at the beginning of this decade.  In other words, Deck and Herson have no way of knowing if the people who committed the typos they traveled the country to correct were taught via phonics or whole language or some combination of methods.  In fact, there is a fair chance (given the chronology), that most people over the age of 30 were never touched by the whole word catastrophe that Deck and Herson point to as the root cause of our language woes.

There’s no denying that there are vast deficiencies in our educational system, but in order to get at those, we have to go past the phonics debate and look at the structural relationship between poverty and illiteracy, the deterioration of schools in poor neighborhoods, state and local governments that continue to drain money from public education, the shortage of qualified teachers, and other ways in which class, race, and geography function as barriers to education and functional literacy.  Deck and Herson address some of that, but when you look at the problem in that way, running around the country correcting typos on signs seems pitifully ineffectual as a means of correcting or even bringing attention to the problem.  It’s treating the symptoms and ignoring the disease.  It’s hacking away at the tip of the iceberg or whatever tortured metaphor you please.  Worse, it’s a self-serving stunt.

So no, guys, I’m not proud of you for correcting other people’s typos.  If the goal was get yourself published, then congrats, but in terms of addressing any larger problem, it’s pretty sad.

Addendum:  I’ve been skimming through the online preview of the book, and some of the prose is just, well…I’ll let you see for yourself:

I discussed my cross-country typo-hunting notion with barely anyone, cradling it close and secret lest the scrutiny of others burn mortal wounds into its gossamer body.

Yikes.  I don’t think I have another Lionel Tiger dissection in me right now, but let’s hit the high points:  “notion” seems to be in keeping with the affected, overwrought diction that infects everything I’ve read so far.  “Cradling it close and secret” is just flat-out awkward, and, come to think of it, should read “closeLY and secretLY” (not that the correction would improve it all that much).  And the metaphor at the end there made me die a little bit inside.

Addendum 2:  Deck and Herson once got arrested for correcting typos on defacing a historical artifact in Grand Canyon National Park.  Way to go.

You Don’t Get to Talk About Immigration Without Talking About Race

On television, on the internet, from members of my family, I keep hearing things like:

“I’m just concerned about the rule of law.”

“I’m just concerned about the drain on our resources.”

“I’m just concerned about the impact on our school system.”

“I’m just concerned that their children won’t have the English skills to succeed.”

Statements like these are usually preceded or followed with some variant of, “It’s not about race.”


We do not ever, EVER get to talk about the U.S.-Mexico border without talking about race. We do not ever get to talk about immigration without talking about race. We do not ever get to talk about second language issues, especially pertaining to Spanish/English, without also talking about race. Why? Because race is a part of the history of The Border, just as it is a part of the history of slavery, of the Holocaust, of the War on Terror, of apartheid, of North American Indian Reservations, and of Jim Crow. It is, in the broadest sense, part of the history of the Western Hemisphere. It is a history in which light-skinned European adventurers came to this hemisphere and displaced, enslaved, and exterminated millions of indigenous people because of greed, because of hubris, because of religion, and because of race, because they believed that the people they found here were less human than they were.

This is not a history in which you personally took part. Your family may not have been directly responsible for perpetuating those insidious crimes. This is not a history that you can go back and erase or ameliorate. It simply is. It simply is a history that resulted in Person A having a nice house in the suburbs and shopping at Whole Foods and Person B enduring a poverty so crushing that they would risk life and limb and personal liberty in order to mow the lawn and clean the house and diaper the children of Person A and harvest the produce that is sold at Whole Foods, making an hourly wage that is less than what Person A spent on coffee this morning. And it is a history in which Person A can say, without paying very many social penalties, that the problem with Person B is that she did not respect the law and hasn’t worked hard enough to perfect his English.

That’s called Privilege. If you are Person A, it is not something that you can relinquish, but it is something that you can be a total dick about if you aren’t careful. And given the history I just described, I have to say that when you say stuff like,

“It’s not about race, I just can’t understand what they’re saying.”

“It’s not racial profiling. I don’t even know what an immigrant looks like!”

You sound fucking ridiculous.

I know you probably weren’t thinking about race when you said it. I know you believe that deep down inside you really don’t harbor any ill will toward those who look and speak differently from you. I know that from your perspective, race probably doesn’t have a lot to do with anything. But that’s because in the Historical Lottery, you hit the genetic jackpot. Whether you are aware of your privilege or not, you have cashed in on it. You benefit from the historical inequities I described, and while that doesn’t mean that I think you should hand over your suburban home to an immigrant family, I do think that you should shut the fuck up until you’ve done a lot of reading and a bit of introspection on the issue.

I’m just saying.

*This post is not directed at any of the commentariat here. It is the product of an ongoing fight with a family member and the headache-inducing results of typing in “accent discrimination arizona” into Google in order to research this post.

Arizona Linguists Take on the “Fluency” Issue

Mark Lieberman at Language Log reported today on the Arizona law requiring educators to meet certain (rather vague) standards of English fluency in order to keep their jobs. This has widely been reported as an effort to crack down on “accented speech” in the classroom. The entire post is worth reading, as Lieberman attempts to suss out exactly what the law demands, but I thought the eight points submitted by the University of Arizona linguistics department to the Governor and Superintendant were worth citing here:

1. ‘Heavily accented’ speech is not the same as ‘unintelligible’ or ‘ungrammatical’ speech.
2. Speakers with strong foreign accents may nevertheless have mastered grammar and idioms of English as well as native speakers.
3. Teachers whose first language is Spanish may be able to teach English to Spanish‐speaking students better than teachers who don’t speak Spanish.
4. Exposure to many different speech styles, dialects and accents helps (and does not harm) the acquisition of a language.
5. It is helpful for all students (English language learners as well as native speakers) to be exposed to foreign‐accented speech as a part of their education.
6. There are many different ‘accents’ within English that can affect intelligibility, but the policy targets foreign accents and not dialects of English.
7. Communicating to students that foreign accented speech is ‘bad’ or ‘harmful’ is counterproductive to learning, and affirms pre‐existing patterns of linguistic bias and harmful ‘linguistic profiling’.
8. There is no such thing as ‘unaccented’ speech, and so policies aimed at eliminating accented speech from the classroom are paradoxical.

The statement, which is linked to Lieberman’s post, rigorously backs each of these points up with sources representing the best work in the linguistics field.

I’ve pointed out before just how our “what about the children” concerns about non-standard and emergent forms of English–like textspeak–reflect a not-so-subtle form of xenophobia (not to mention classism and ableism), but the Arizona law stands as a pretty blatant example of it. While I do believe that educators who are teaching English should be proficient in the language to the extent that they can be understood and communicate English-language concepts effectively, it simply is not correct to conflate accent with non-standard grammar or lack of intelligibility. If Arizona wished to apply their laws fairly–as Lieberman demonstrates–then they would have to reprimand or reassign white native English speakers who misuse words or speak “ungrammatically” as well, but that’s probably not going to happen.  And as I have pointed out, enforcing draconian standards with regard to grammar are often a way of arbitrarily leveraging privilege as well.

Additionally, as Language Log commenters Jen Mc-Gahan and marie-lucie point out, most foreign language instructors in U.S. schools are not native speakers of that language. How are “fluency” standards established in those cases? Does their Spanish pronunciation/accent have to be able to pass muster in Mexico City? Every foreign language teacher at Evangelical High, where I went to school, was U.S.-American. They were masters of the grammar and, in some cases, idiom of the language they were teaching, but even my AP French teacher acknowledged that she does not speak perfect Parisian France and probably wouldn’t be understood in Canada or Senegal, both French speaking countries with different accents. Nevertheless, she was an excellent teacher, well versed in French literature and culture and effective at teaching us high school level French.

It is also worth pointing out that the teachers targeted by laws like this seem to be those teaching English to immigrant students. Perhaps that is an incorrect perception, but it seems to me that having a native Spanish speaker teaching English to native Spanish speakers presents the very same benefits and challenges as having a native English speaker teach French to native English speakers: the baseline level of mutual comfort in the common language can help the instructor to convey difficult grammatical concepts in the foreign language in an intelligible, helpful way.

Ultimately, before U.S.-Americans can address this problem objectively and effectively, we need to take a long, hard look at the intersections between racism and language bias in this country. Why is it, for example, that we insist that some English accents (British, Irish, New Englander, even Southern) are legitimate (and even charming!) and some are not? Why are we so very uncomfortable with non-native English speakers speaking amongst themselves in their own language? Why do we insist that immigrants assimilate linguistically effective immediately, when anyone who has taken a foreign language class knows that fluency take years to develop? And whose comfort/welfare are we really considering when we make those demands? The children for whom English-proficiency will not only impact their future career prospects but the degree to which they may experience marginalization? Or those of us who just don’t want to be reminded that Other People live here too and don’t want to work a little harder to understand the person sitting across the table or behind the lectern.

Update:  From The Washington Post–Students learn a second language better if the instructor has the same accent as themselves.

Update II:  From The Journal of Extension

Communication is a two-way process. Both the speaker and the listener have a responsibility for the act of communication. While different or foreign accents can sometimes interfere with the listener’s ability to understand the message, accents can conjure up negative evaluations of the speaker, reducing the listener’s willingness to accept their responsibility in the communication process. Sometimes, it becomes easy to say, “I simply can’t understand you,” placing full responsibility for the communication process on the speaker.

Why I’m Not Proud of You for Correcting Other People’s Grammar, Part Deux

Yesterday, I wrote a 3000 word post about grammar that some folks seemed to like. The point of that post was that grammatical correctness is often confused for facility with words, that the former is a step toward the latter but not the entirety of it. I argued that it is more important for writers, be they students or professionals, to say what they mean. In that post, I used a sample from Lionel Tiger’s new book–a sample originally posted on The Sexist–to show how grammatically correct writing can sometimes become unreadable. Amanda Hess evidently saw the trackback and liked it, because she devoted a whole post to it! And traffic on this blog has increased by like 2000%! And I’ve had to delete some trolls who didn’t actually read the post, which is, I think, a blogger rite of passage!  So, thank you Amanda Hess!

Today, however, I am going to offer up an example of how language can be used beautifully, how a writer can use sophisticated sentence structures and even non-standard grammar to great effect. I just finished teaching Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses to my Literature and Religion class, so I might as well go with that. When students first encounter Rushdie’s prose, they often find it difficult to wade through, but as I will show, the complexity of it–the way he piles images and motifs onto one another–actually enhances the ideas he is presenting without obscuring them. In other words, it’s challenging in a good way. It immerses you in the ideas instead of pulling you out of them.  Let’s start with the third paragraph of the first chapter, which begins with two men falling from the sky:

Gibreel, the tuneless soloist, had been cavorting in moonlight as he sang his impromptu gazal, swimming in air, butterfly-stroke, breast-stroke, bunching himself into a ball, spreadeagling himself against the almost-infinity of the almost-dawn, adopting heraldic postures, rampant, couchant, pitting levity against gravity. Now he rolled happily towards the sardonic voice. “Ohe, Salad baba, it’s you, too good. What-ho, old Chumch.” At which the other, a fastidious shadow falling headfirst in a grey suit all the jacket buttons done up, arms by his sides, taking for granted the improbability of the bowler hat on his head, pulled a nickname-hater’s face. “Hey, Spoono,” Gibreel yelled, eliciting a second inverted wince, “Proper London, bhai! here we come! Those bastards down there won’t know what hit them. Meteor or lightning or vengeance of God. Out of thin air, baby. Dharrraaammm!Wham!, na? What an entrance, yaar. I swear, splat.”

Ok, first of all, let’s get one thing straight. This is not stream of consciousness narrative. My students are quick to toss this term onto the table, but it isn’t accurate. One of the Amazon commenters on Tiger’s book referred to it as “stream of consciousness,” which has come to mean, I think, “prose I don’t understand.” Stream of consciousness narrative attempts to replicate the thought processes of an individual mind and reads the way it does (not easily) because when we think, our thoughts jump around. Perception and cognition aren’t coherent or linear. James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is representative of stream of consciousness because we never leave the mind of the protagonist, Stephen Daedalus. The first two sections of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury are stream of consciousness because they occupy the minds of Benjy and Quentin, and they are difficult to read because neither of these two characters are neurotypical.

No, The Satanic Verses employs a straightforward omniscient narrator, and omniscient narrator who turns out to be Satan actually, but we don’t know that at this point in the novel. The terms that best describes Rushdie’s prose are non-linear or surrealistic, though magic realism is the generic name for this type of fiction. Magic realism is where the narrative clearly inhabits the “real world” (i.e. this isn’t Narnia or Middle Earth) but crazy supernatural stuff happens. However, you also have to account for the fact that Rushdie often uses the speech patterns of Central Asian English speakers in his prose, and that is part of what de-familiarizes it, though in an intriguing way, I think. There is an aural quality to his writing that makes for great out-loud reading. As an Indian man who grew up in the wake of the British Raj and inhabits a globalizing society, he is interested in how linguistic groups from the former colonies have adapted the language of their colonizers. But he isn’t exactly doing dialect, which has historically been used as a kind of literary black-face. He isn’t trying to convey a character’s accent through non-standard spelling. Instead, he reproduces the idiom and cadence of those speech patterns, which is really effing cool.

In this paragraph, he is introducing the two main characters of the novel and showing us that they are complete opposites, “levity against gravity.” Though Gibreel’s banter and his mode of falling, we get a sense of his exuberance and wonder. Then we see Saladin Chamcha with his buttoned up suit, bowler hat, rigid posture, and hatred of nicknames and immediately understand that he is a grouch. Gibreel is sort of loving this unlikely and surely terrifying experience, but Saladin is clearly hating it. If you got nothing more out of that paragraph than what I just said, you would be perfectly capable of grasping what happens in the rest of the chapter and the rest of the novel. In other words, it is possible to have a purely straight foward, non-symbolic understanding of this paragraph if that’s your thing.  But there is actually more going on here, and one of the beauties of Rushdie’s prose is that it rewards you on the second and third and fourth reading. Having read this book something like five times, I now know enough about what is about to come to appreciate how Rushdie uses these early paragraphs to set up all of his themes.

In traditional sonata format–the compositional structure that informed a lot of the classical music you hear–the first section is called the Exposition. This is where the composer introduces the tonal key and musical ideas he plans to explore in the rest of the piece. That’s essentially what Rushdie does here. For one thing, there is actual music here.  Gibreel falls while singing, an activity that presages the significance of “verses,” namely the verses of the Qu’ran later in the book.  We are also about to learn that Saladin Chamcha, an Indian expatriate who lives in London, has shunned his past and family history. His fractured relationship with his father, his embarrassment about coming from the “third world,” and his desire to impress the British have led him to become, well, T.S. Eliot or something. He has reinvented himself and become more British than the British, adopting a stereotypically “proper” mode of dress (the grey suit and bowler hat). Furthermore, the nickname that Gibreel uses–“Spoono,” which is a play on Saladin’s Anglicized last name, which used to be Chamchawala and is now Chamcha–translates to something like “sell-out.” Saladin’s truncated name is a derogatory word for Indians who collaborated with the British under the Raj, and Gibreel is mocking him for it. Conversely, Gibreel, a Bollywood film star, is the pop culture icon of his nation. He is exuberant in his Indianness, and that is partly why Saladin finds his nattering–so different from Saladin’s, due to his attempts to erase his linguistic past from his speech patterns–so irritating.

But it gets even more trippy than that. Rushdie slyly sneaks in many of the leitmotifs that will become significant in the rest of the novel. The big theme of this book is transformation. He is exploring the way the post-colonial experience has metamorphosed not only individuals but entire cultures, the way in which it is in the process of transforming both colonizer and colonized in frightening and unintended ways. Gibreel and Saladin are about to be changed into the forms of the angel Gabriel (Gibreel adopts “heraldic postures” in the air) and the Devil respectively (there’s that whole magic realism thing) following this fall from the sky. The first sentence of the book is “‘To be born again,’ sang Gibreel Farishta tumbling from the heavens, ‘first you have to die.'” So after metaphorically “dying” by falling from an airplane that was taking them from India to Britain and was blown up by a suicide bomber, they emerge from the English Channel bearing these new forms, which will symbolize the divergent fates that await immigrants on the shores of a new country.

So this paragraph is laden with images of transformation. Among Gibreel’s many mid-air stunts, he performs a “butterfly-stroke,” and butterflies will become an important metamorphosis image later on. We also have the exploration of liminal space. The word “liminal” comes from the Latin word for threshhold and means the space in between spaces or states of being. Victor Turner applied the term to religious rituals he observed in his ethnographic research.  In the space of the ritual, social boundaries evaporated and roles were reversed. One might say that it is in the liminal space of the Eucharist that the bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Christ. Liminal spaces are where things pause on the way to becoming other things, where the magic happens. When Rushdie speaks of “the almost-infinity of the almost-dawn,” this is what he is talking about–the in between time where these people are no longer what they were but not yet what they are going to be, no longer night, but not yet morning.

There are multiple liminal spaces in The Satanic Verses, but the two important ones in this paragraph are water and air. the air part is obvious. That’s what they’re falling through. It is the medium they inhabit between the wreckage of the airplane, carrying their past lives, and the new life ahead with all of it’s uncertainty. Thin air is a dangerous place, but it is also a spiritual place. Gibreel himself refers to “thin air” at the end of this paragraph, and that phrase gets repeated twice in the next paragraph. (Ok, how cool would it be if it turned out that Jon Krakauer’s book title was a reference to this?)  That paragraph also references Mount Everest, the obsession of British mountain climber Allie Cone, who sees ghosts and angels after ascending the highest mountain in the world without supplemental oxygen. High spaces, where the air is thin, are spaces in which we face mortality, in which the barriers between life and death, earth and the afterworld are rendered permeable. This is also true of water, which is the space of birth but also of drowning, the space of baptism and ritual cleansing but also of destruction (later we are introduced to a desert city made of sand, where water represents a threat). Rushdie is playing with these two mediums by having Gibreel literally “swim” through the air as they plummet toward the sea.

These are profoundly religious images. Angels, demons, baptism, rebirth, judgement. Rushdie mines the myths of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism for metaphors and narratives that help him explain how post-colonial migrants experience this new world. In doing so, he is giving that story dignity, but he is also commenting on the role that religion itself plays in public life. Gibreel alludes to this when he mentions “meteor or lightning or vengeance of God.” Rushdie is concerned about what happens when these religious myths and metaphors cease being metaphorical and start structuring our lives in potentially scary ways: when religion is used to justify oppressing people or blowing up planes. Gibreel will ultimately style himself as the instrument of God’s vengeance upon the unfaithful (namely, people he does not like or trust), and that brings him to a bad end.

And all of that stuff is expressed within that one dense paragraph. As I said, even without knowing all that is foreshadowed here, you could get the major point. The complexity adds meaning to the text rather than obfuscating it. It’s difficult to say the same for Tiger’s “enchanted puzzlement.” No words are wasted here.

Yet two weeks ago, one of my undergrads moaned, “Why can’t he just use proper grammar?” This happened. I’m not making it up. It’s at times like these when I wish my classroom came equipped with trap doors under each chair like at Dr. Evil’s conference table. First of all, this student and his ilk clearly did not recognize that most of Rushdie’s prose is grammatically correct. He does deliberately use things like sentence fragments in dialogue because that is how most people talk, and most novelists since the Victorian era have felt free to break that rule. What they seem to be reacting to is the non-linearity and complexity of it. And I’m actually ok with that. Occasionally, good writing doesn’t bottle-feed you. This is why we have English class.

When you were a snotty teenager and first saw abstract art, wasn’t your first reaction something like, “Feh, I could do that.” The truth is, no you couldn’t. Most abstract and surrealist artists had to learn how to do photo-realistic drawing and painting before they moved on to paint splatters and blocks of color. Grammar is sort of like that. You have to learn how to play by the rules so that you can selectively break them when it serves your purpose. As a former Washington Post columnist, Rushdie has proven time and time again that he is capable of writing lucid expository prose. Here is what he says about the stories religion gives us, the stories that inform alot of his fiction, in a 1997 letter to the “Six Billionth World Citizen” and reprinted in the non-fiction collection Step Across this Line:

Many of these stories will strike you as extremely beautiful, and therefore seductive. Unfortunately, however, you will not be required to make a purely literary response to them. Only the stories of “dead” religions can be appreciated for their beauty. Living religions require much more of you. So you will be told that belief in “your” stories, and adherence to the rituals of worship that have grown up around them must become a ital part of your life in the crowded world. They will be called the heart of your culture, even of your individual identity. It is possible that they may at some point come to feel inescapable, not in the way that the truth is inescapable but in the way that a jail is. They may at some point cease to feel like the texts in which human beings have tried to solve a great mystery and feel, instead, like the pretexts for other, properly anointed human beings to order you around. And it’s true that human history is full of the public oppression wrought by the charioteers of the gods. In the opinion of religious people, however, the private comfort that religion brings more than compensates for the evil done in its name.

Okay, I chose this passage on purpose, not only because it speaks to the themes of The Satanic Verses but because it says something rather similar to what the Tiger example says. It’s talking about the intractability of public discussions about religion as an evolutionarily and aesthetically important part of human history because the enemies and champions of religion essentially have nothing to say to one another and don’t want anyone else to talk about it either. But look what we have here: modifiers, some of them even arguably extraneous, but none of which impede the flow of the writing. In addition, we have poignant metaphors, sentence variety, neat shifts from lofty to vernacular language, from “pretexts” to “order you around.” The meaning of this paragraph is transparent and well-said. It’s quotable, even. I can read it out loud to my class (which I did) and maintain their rapt attention.

That’s what language, in the right hands, can really do. Rushdie is capable of using both standard and non-standard grammar because of that fluency thing. He commands the English language. Every word does what he wants and needs it to do.

Why I’m Not Proud of You for Correcting Other People’s Grammar

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.