Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

In which I'm not only not funny, but I'm actively telling you to stop laughing at things

by Robison Wells

A week ago, Jeff and Sariah blogged about The Hunger Games. I'd heard a lot of good about this book, and I also happened to have an unused gift card to Barnes and Noble, so I bought it. After a few moments of reading, I posted to Jeff's blog, commenting that WHAT THE HECK!? THE BOOK IS IN PRESENT TENSE!? I said that the story was good, but that the writing was grating and annoying, and that I wanted to stick a ballpoint pen through my eye.

On top of being in present tense, the writing is very free-flowing. It's not stream of consciousness, per se, but it is conversational. The sentence structure is very accurate to real spoken English, which means that it's very inaccurate to the rules of written English.

But then, a strange and wonderous thing happened: the book turned out to be great. And, furthermore, I not only came to tolerate the writing, but loved it.

And, it got me thinking: who cares about grammar? And, also: people who care about grammar: what sad, miserable lives they must lead.

No, that's not exactly what I thought. I actually thought about Strunk and White's Elements of Style, one of my very favorite writing tools. (I was never introduced to S&W in any of my English or writing classes, which is a shame, because it's marvelous. My English teachers were too busy making me read cowboy poetry.) (Or, at least, I think that's what they were doing. I didn't attend class much.)

Anyway. S&W says the following about grammar: "It's an old observation that some of the best writers disregard the rules of rhetoric." (They give the caveat, however: "Unless he is certain of doing well [the writer] will probably do best to follow the rules.")

One of the common topics around author blogs (including this very one) is that of "What grammar problems annoy you the most?" I'll admit that I get into these kinds of discussions from time to time, though I always feel a little embarrassed afterward. For one thing, I don't know a participle from a preposition, and I have no place saying "Look at that crappy writer! He said 'The man literally flew down the street!' What? Was he in an airplane? Is he Superman! What a maroon!"

But, I also think I've come to the decision that I don't really care. Now, I don't mean that if I were to come across a book that was poorly written I wouldn't set it down. I just mean: big deal.

There was recently a news story about a couple of buffoons who started an organization called the Typo Eradication Advancement League (described in the Chicago Tribune as "a pair of Kerouacs armed with Sharpies and erasers and righteous indignation".

Now, I hope you've already begun to realize why I called them buffoons, even before I've told you of their most famous incident. It is this: while visiting the Grand Canyon, they happened on a sign that was committing a most horrible and grevious sin; it was missing one apostrophe and one comma. So, in an effort to demonstrate for the world what a couple of sanctimonious narcissists they are, they altered the sign. And thus the language was saved!

Of course, the sign was handmade and had significant historic value. But, historicity be danged if there are typos to be fixed!

A friend of mine is a frequent reader of The "Blog" of "Unnecessary" Quotation Marks, and I'll admit that I have read through most of it and even laughed. The gist of the blog is that they post photos of signs that have unecessary quotation marks, which lead to humorous double meanings. (For example, a coffee mug which reads "Anyone can drive a car, but it takes someone "special" to drive a school bus.") For those of us who know what quotation marks are actually used for--that is, indicating ironic words or calling into question the actual meaning of the word--it's very funny. Instead of actually saying that school bus drivers are special, the mug is saying that they're "special", wink wink, if you know what I mean.

Of course, the problem with this is that the blog authors (and those who visit and snigger) are essentially mocking people who have committed the unforgivable sin of Not Knowing The Right Way To Use A Quotation Mark. For shame.

In other words: we're smarter than you, so we'll laugh at your stupidity.

It annoys me.

One of my very favorite wordsmiths, Stephen Fry, recently said in a podcast:

"Sadly, desperately sadly, the only people who seem to bother with language in public today bother with it in quite the wrong way. They write letters to broadcasters and newspapers in which they are rude and haughty about other people’s usage and in which they show off their own superior ‘knowledge’ of how language should be. I hate that, and I particularly hate the fact that so many of these pedants assume that I’m on their side. When asked to join in a “let’s persuade this supermarket chain to get rid of their ‘five items or less’ sign” I never join in. Yes, I am aware of the technical distinction between ‘less’ and ‘fewer’, and between ‘uninterested’ and ‘disinterested’ and ‘infer’ and ‘imply’, but none of these are of importance to me. ‘None of these are of importance,’ I wrote there, you’ll notice – the old pedantic me would have insisted on 'none of them is of importance'. Well I’m glad to say I’ve outgrown that silly approach to language. Oscar Wilde, and there have been few greater and more complete lords of language in the past thousand years, once included with a manuscript he was delivering to his publishers a compliment slip in which he had scribbled the injunction: “I’ll leave you to tidy up the woulds and shoulds, wills and shalls, thats and whiches &c.” Which gives us all encouragement to feel less guilty, don’t you think?"

It reminds me of a story I heard--from the crazy author herself--of a time when a young assistant editor went through a manuscript and, if you can imagine, changed a bunch of commas! This author was distraught that someone had dared to fiddle with her punctuation, and it was only after the managing editor had overnighted flowers to the author's house that the whole sordid affair was resolved. That's right: an author who was so livid about commas that she needed to be consoled by management and gifts. FOR CRYING OUT LOUD.

My point is not to say that we should be sloppy in our language, or that good grammar doesn't matter. My point is that we (authors and readers) get way too worked up about it. Robert Heinlien once wisely pointed out that the "English [language] is the result of Norman soldiers attempting to pick up Anglo-Saxon barmaids." In other words, this language that prescriptivists so fervently revere is really just a mishmash of errors and duct tape anyway. So lighten up.


26 Comments:

At 2/03/2009 11:39 PM, Blogger David G. Woolley said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

 
At 2/04/2009 1:51 AM, Blogger Matthew Buckley said...

I have long maintained that humor is just our way to cope with intense emotions such as fear and pain. Why else do we laugh ourselves silly when we see people get hurt or kicked on America's Funniest Home Videos?

We laugh when we see somebody else on the outside, and we're on the inside--the famed inside joke. We are laughing with everybody else because we're relieved we're not the one who made the mistake. We're glad we're not the object of the ridicule.

 
At 2/04/2009 6:49 AM, Blogger Evil HR Lady said...

This was a "great" post. Its one that made me think, about propper gramer. Seems like; propar grammer and "punctuation" ain't that important anyhow.

That was painful to write. I hate misuse of quotation marks, though. And, you also failed because you were still funny.

 
At 2/04/2009 9:43 AM, Blogger David G. Woolley said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

 
At 2/04/2009 10:01 AM, Blogger Annette Lyon said...

To a great extent, I agree. (Bet you didn't expect THAT.)

But I disagree about WHY so many people are out there doing this kind of thing, like the blog about quotation marks. I guess I can speak only for myself, but I don't see it as laughing at others' inferiority.

The way I see it, we're in more of a writing/reading age than at any other time in history--anyone can write and be published through a blog or newspaper comments or whatever--any a huge portion of the population does just that.

So here we have this massive population writing--but if they don't have a basic understanding about grammar and puntuation, their writing can lead to major misunderstandings or unintentionally misleading statements.

It seems to me that it's more important than ever to learn some of the basics so you can get your message across clearly and effectively.

So if a blog showing unnecessary qutation marks can help someone GET what those little curvy things are all about--and do so in a lighthearted way--then more power to them.

That's sort of what I attempt to do with my Word Nerd Wednesday series. I certainly hope I'm not coming across as some snooty superior intellectual (Hahaha! Me? Intellectual? Hahaha!), because the point is to learn a few things about using language and learn them in a fun and non-threatening way.

Off my soap box. :)

 
At 2/04/2009 10:39 AM, Blogger David G. Woolley said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

 
At 2/04/2009 10:43 AM, Blogger David G. Woolley said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

 
At 2/04/2009 11:29 AM, Blogger Anna said...

I think it's important to know how to speak and write correctly. But I also don't think it's that big of a deal if you mess up.

If you're talking to a client or writing a cover letter, you should hopefully come across as educated and not have lots of typos or sound like a redneck.

But for everyday talking and writing, if your wording isn't so far off that people don't have a clue what you are saying, I say talk and write how you want.

 
At 2/04/2009 12:12 PM, Blogger RobisonWells said...

I agree, Annette, but I think that argument only goes so far.

Take two examples that ALWAYS come up when people are complaining about bad grammar/usage: "Ten items or less" and "I could care less". If the argument is "We need to learn grammar/usage so as to avoid confusion and misunderstandings in communication", there is no way to argue that anyone on earth doesn't understand that "ten items or less" actually means "ten items or fewer". And everyone knows that "I could care less" actually means "I couldn't care less".

I don't mean to defend plain bad writing (such as Evil HR Lady's first paragraph) (and everything that Woolley writes) (ZING!). I'm just saying that to vociferously complain about grammatical trivialities seems kind of silly.

(At least, this is my official position as of today. The next time I come across a post about bad grammar, I'll probably leave some angry comments about apostrophes.) :)

 
At 2/04/2009 12:14 PM, Blogger Annette Lyon said...

Oooh--I wanna see THAT post!

And you're right--the confusion thing only goes so far.

But I still think that by and large, a professionally published book shouldn't have errors like that. Regular conversation and blogs are another animal.

 
At 2/04/2009 12:38 PM, Blogger David G. Woolley said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

 
At 2/04/2009 12:43 PM, Blogger RobisonWells said...

Do your worst. I wear Old Spice Arctic Breeze With Flea Protection. (I've been cursed before.)

 
At 2/04/2009 12:52 PM, Blogger David G. Woolley said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

 
At 2/04/2009 1:49 PM, Blogger Heather B. Moore said...

I think in this sketchy economy we need to do our part to keep each other in business. Where would the copyeditors go if we authors didn't make grammar or punctuation mistakes? What would the Sharpie assembly-line people do if we didn't buy Sharpies to correct signs? It's all about working together.

 
At 2/04/2009 5:05 PM, Anonymous Dan Wells said...

You're comment at the end was wrong-headed and didn't fit the rest of the post. You were complaining about pedants who mock other people for not understanding language, but the story of the author was about an artist whose very specific choices had been altered. You wouldn't make fun of a painter for getting mad when somebody moved all the flowers around on her painting; at least I hope you wouldn't. You shouldn't make fun of an exacting author, either.

The thing about language is that it bears meaning, and when it is misused that meaning is changed. That's why the quotation mark blog exists. Yes, it's true that many of us (I readily include myself in this) are far too quick to point mocking fingers at those who don't use language correctly, but that doesn't mean we can throw it out altogether. You can't just say "it's only a few commas, for crying out loud," because commas are important; their position in a sentence can alter or even reverse your intended meaning. That's why we have them. I'm all for a less pedantic society, but there's an awfully wide gap between "I'll let this one slide" and "punctuation is completely meaningless."

As an artist, I'd like to think that art is important enough to warrant a little care--the artist makes choices, and those choices matter; without them the art and its effect on the audience would be completely different, or entirely random. It's one thing to complain about a grocer who puts an apostrophe in "Avocado's 99 cents each," but it's another thing entirely to complain about an author who knows punctuation and takes pride in her work.

At the end of the day, assuming that language is even slightly important, shouldn't a copy editor of all people be responsible for its proper use? Sure, let's stop making fun of the uneducated, but a copy editor? Seriously? If I met a copy editor as careless with punctuation as you suggest in this story, I wouldn't work with her, either.

 
At 2/04/2009 5:08 PM, Blogger Annette Lyon said...

Rob, I just decided that your brother is like the coolest person in the world.

Just sayin'.

 
At 2/04/2009 5:19 PM, Anonymous Dan Wells said...

Because I leave a long, obnoxious message about the importance of punctuation, while simultaneously misusing it in the very first word? I just noticed that, but I didn't realize it gave me "coolest person in the world" status.

 
At 2/04/2009 5:23 PM, Blogger RobisonWells said...

Annette, you're just saying that because you've never met him in person.

And yes, I can see Dan's point. I would add that the author in question wasn't very good (though they sold well) and that the copy editor in this case was probably right. But, you make a good point.

 
At 2/04/2009 6:21 PM, Anonymous Dan Wells said...

That's not a real comment, you just cut-and-pasted it from your email to me. Cheater.

 
At 2/05/2009 8:33 AM, Blogger jeans said...

Enjoyed the post. You'd probably like the book Eats, Shoots and Leaves. It's terrific.

 
At 2/05/2009 1:35 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm just glad Jeff fixed his spelling error and blamed DW for it. :)

 
At 2/05/2009 2:39 PM, Blogger Jon Spell said...

Is that Stephen Fry of Bits of Fry and Laurie ? Love that stuff. (And I'm still trying to get my wife to read the Gunseller.)

Also, added Hunger Games to my wishlist. =)

My own personal opinion is that if you are an author and you have a poor grasp of grammar rules, it comes across as though you are less intelligent or simply careless about your craft. On the other hand, copy-editors need work, too. =)

 
At 2/05/2009 3:27 PM, Blogger J Scott Savage said...

Anon,

Jest whait tilll my nexst bloog.

 
At 2/05/2009 9:19 PM, Blogger Karlene said...

I agree with Annette. And with Heather, having bought stock in Sharpie and BIC (the pens, not the razors). Coorecting other people's grammar has put food on my table for the past 20+ years.

And I know this makes me a petty and small-minded person, but I will still snicker behind everyone's back (and often to their faces) when they make grammar errors. Because that's just the kind of haughty judgemental person I am. Grammar Nazis unite!

(And I don't mind at all when others laugh at my mistakes either. I put several in this comment, on purpose. Can you find them all?)

 
At 2/05/2009 11:42 PM, Blogger Sandra said...

Karlene- I would say which ones I found, but I would be afraid that when I came VT you would be silently laughing at me.

 
At 2/06/2009 3:24 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Karlene, you crack me up!

I have pet grammar sins that probably drive my writer/editor friends nuts.
I've always passed it off as just being me, but I guess I really should work on that, especially if it makes "me" look like a moron!

Thanks for the reminder.

I love that quotation blog - funny stuff!

Pat

 

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