Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Day 30 of 365: Grammar

"I like the idea of taking less classes," she told me one afternoon.


She stopped midstride and turned to me.


My mouth contorted into a skewed line.  I shrugged my shoulders and shuffled my feet, all in a failed attempt to appear nonchalant.

"Fewer classes," I went on, suddenly far too conscious of what I was doing.

She cocked her head to the side for a moment, before waving a hand in my direction, as if shooing away my grammatical correction.

"Ah, less, fewer.  Whatever.  Doesn't matter."  She returned to whatever she had been doing in the living room, leaving me standing in her kitchen, feeling more than a little stumped.

It's not fair to harangue English majors when they slip up on grammar.  Heaven knows I've had to bite my tongue to keep from Hulk raging every time someone laughed at a seemingly innocuous mistake and said, "...and I thought you were an English major!"  I once had a guy (complete stranger) get me for saying, "I'm good."  He then went on to chide me about being an English major and brag about how his sons were going to WPI.  I was so angry that I couldn't even tell him that what I had said was grammatically correct (and that he was a jackass).

But still.  Not only was this friend an English major as well, but was interning at a publishing house and had dreams of being an editor someday.

And it wasn't that she made an error: it was that she didn't care that she made an error.

That disregard has no place in people who study English (particularly the language arts portion) in college.  Grammatical rules are fickle.  And what rules are considered important is hugely subjective (fun fact: did you know we all use the wrong "hopefully" wrong?  Hopefully no one will ever get on your case for it).

But bibliophiles and palabraphiles (a word I'm making up to mean, "lover of words") care.   We care about the ebb and flow of words.  We care about the beat and the beauty.  We learn about the grammar rules,  if only so we can properly break them (the same way Picasso was a classically-trained painter).  I care about the Oxford comma because it can shape a sentence the way a 3/4 measurement can shape a song.  I care about the proper use of ellipses because it can drive a point home or make a sentence collapse in on itself.  I hate flowery sentences  because they are the tacky lawn ornaments of the writing world, cheapening and cluttering up an originally amazing idea.

Now, if my friend had said, "I know, but I like the sound of 'less classes' better," I would've been okay.  I wouldn't have agreed, but it would've been okay.  Like I had already said, you got to learn the rules before you can properly break them.  As Stephen Fry once pointed out, you cannot tie yourself down to rules.  Give words freedom of expression and experience.  Grammar rules will change.  What will get you an A during one generation will fail you in another.  Remember,  for all of Shakespeare's wit and poetry, his plays were written in the same manner that people spoke back then.

But, no matter what, you have to care about the sentence structure.  You have to care about the word variation.  You have to dive deep into the world of your language, appreciate the semantics and etymology and syntax.  You have to respect and admire where this is all coming from, even if you willfully choose to ignore some of it.

For crying out loud, I just made up a word.  Sometimes, to really make it, even on a personal level, you need to care, and care deeply -- and then splash the colors on the canvas however you see fit.

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