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The Grammar Nazi and the Zen Grammarian

April 24, 2010 No Comments Other Matters

Grammar Nazis and the Zen Grammarian
Towards the fag end of the second World War, a rumour was running through the Allied countries, characterized by this paragraph from Time Magazine:
But what of the top Nazis who cannot hide? With a compact army of young SS and Hitler Youth fanatics, they will retreat, behind a loyal rearguard cover of Volksgrenadiere and Volksstürmer, to the Alpine massif which reaches from southern Bavaria across western Austria to northern Italy. There immense stores of food and munitions are being laid down in prepared fortifications. If the retreat is a success, such an army might hold out for years.”
This Alpenfestung, or Alpine Fortress, was mostly a fantasy; the Nazis of Germany would stand routed with only a few big names making it out alive. But a different group, the Grammar Nazis, have set up a formidable array of such redoubts, in the form of propah professors, competitive entrance exams and meticulous editors. It is the last that concerns this article. Every editor, particularly a fiction editor, has a choice whether to be a Grammar Nazi or not.
The association with the Nazis may come across as offensive, but it isn’t really intended to be, and isn’t really offensive in the world-at-large. There are some things that it is socially commendable to be a Nazi about, like not spitting on the road, or not travelling ticketless on a Mumbai local, or even vegetarianism. Even though ‘Grammar Nazi’ is used by the layman to mock the average pedant who pipes up to correct your syntax in class, I know that there are many who take an evident pride in the label.
I know because I was once a junior, card-carrying member of the Grammar Nazis.
The idea has a certain classical appeal. What Grammar Nazis are looking to build is an ineffaceable edifice, a monument that enduringly presides over the language, rewards its devotees and chides the deviants and the offenders. There is peace in stillness, safety in the solidity of the framework. In general, one of man’s pet bugbears is uncertainty; it takes special training to be able to tolerate uncertainty. Forget about accepting it.
Their arguments are strong as well. If language is to be used for communication, doesn’t it make sense to have a stable framework that everyone can understand? More importantly, long years of associations have lent certain shades of meaning to the “correct” terms and phrases. Won’t these be lost if you loosen the framework, lower the drawbridge and let the ignorant and unscrupulous masses storm the Grammar fortress?
There is one more thing that I would like to say about Grammar Nazis: their assurance is infectious. There is an immediate feeling of respect when you hear a man confidently assert his views, there is an automatic charm in a man who knows what he’s talking about. One of my favourite Grammar Nazis, Henry Watson Fowler, addresses the issue of the stasis of language by introducing two terms, Idiom and Analogy. Idiom is the linguistic convention, the way things are done in language, while analogy is the attempt by people (both who are aware and unaware of the convention and the rationale behind it) to experiment with language.
Here is a passage from Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, 2 e. (1965), delightfully and idiosyncratically titled ‘The Cast-Iron Idiom’ (my paragraphing and pruning to the permitted 250 words):
cast-iron idiom.
Between IDIOM and ANALOGY a secular conflict is waged. Idiom is conservative, standing in the ancient ways, insisting that its property is sacrosanct, permitting no jot or tittle of alteration in the shape of its phrases. Analogy is progressive, bent on extending liberty, demanding better reasons than use and wont for respecting the established, maintaining that the matter is what matters and the form can go hang.
Analogy perpetually wins, is forever successful in recasting some piece of the cast iron, and for that reason no article in this book is likely to be sooner out of date in some of its examples than this. Idiom as perpetually renews the fight, and turns to defend some other object of assault. ‘I doubt that it ever happened’, ‘He is regarded an honest man’,… —all these, says Idiom, are outrages on English; correct them please to ‘ I doubt whether it ever happened’, ‘He is regarded as an honest man’…
But why? retorts Analogy. Is not to doubt to be unconvinced? Is not regarding considering? …Away with such hair-splittings and pedantries! …I propose to neglect your petty regulations…
Not that Analogy, and those whom it influences, are offenders so deliberate and conscious as this description of them might seem to imply ; they treat regard like consider not because they choose to flout the difference that Idiom observes, but because it comes natural to them to disregard distinctions that they have not noticed.”
Note the absolutely wicked pardon proffered by St. Fowler: “not because they choose to flout the difference that Idiom observes, but because it comes natural to them to disregard distinctions that they have not noticed”. That kind of eloquence is rarely possible in a more permissive framework; the grand authoritarian rhetoric gives it its power.
Wherein lies the rub?
The very arguments that Grammar Nazis use turn against them once one views the matter of language from a slightly different angle. This is the small matter of the gap between an existing system and man’s capacity to describe, order and govern that system.
An example is the ecosystem: we may study it and classify it, but can we really order it or control it? Can we declare what exists as ‘incorrect’? Can we, for instance, dismiss the duck-billed platypus as an error in biology? No; we must make room, we must create a new box for it or admit our ignorance.
Language, though it seems to be in our control because it is the currency of our own species, and does not carry biological inevitability, is as much of an ecosystem. And this is because of an important hierarchy that Grammar Nazis ignore: the authority of spoken language over written language.
Written language comes second to spoken language, for written language begins by being primarily a record of spoken language, a hierarchy dominated by the order of human development, starting with speech and followed by writing. And speech is free and situational, and grammar can go take a hike when someone speaks under the influence of passion, of anger, of fear.
Besides, the number of people who have the desire to communicate far exceeds the number of people who are interested in memorizing the conventions of a language.
I have now come to look upon conventions of language, and some conventions of grammar, as not laws but etiquette: and I have a healthy contempt for etiquette as a rigid code of conduct. Etiquette for me is not about specific, high-brow, snooty knowledge, but about grace, the true marker of distinction and class; if etiquette makes one of my guests uncomfortable, it isn’t etiquette, it is a barrier. Similarly, if my Grammar Fascism makes the person speaking to me uncomfortable, I am creating a greater block to communication than his own ignorance.
Language is flux: to impose stasis on it is not only futile, but also arrogant. Static grammar is both comfortable and limited, but our experience of the world is both ever changing and unlimited, and therefore language will always find ways to break out of its own straitjackets. Communities will be reared on “I ain’t going nowhere notime soon”, and, less anomalously, will say “It’s me” and not the pompous but oh-so-correct “It is I”, and there’s very little the small circle of Grammar Nazis can do about it.
There is another deep failing of Grammar Nazis: they lack consensus. Different grammar handbooks will give you different ironclad rules. What one Grammar Nazi will consider excessive and do away with, another will consider mandatory.
The question becomes more fraught when discussing fiction. Two categories of ideas are at work here. One is the right to use non-standard dialects in fiction, often used to assert individuality in the constellation of fiction written in English. Mark Twain’s use of a dialect in both the Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn is an important example. The modern poet John Agard exemplifies the creative use of non-standard dialect to make a political statement in his famous poem ‘Half­­-Caste’:
Explain yuself
wha yu mean
when yu say half-caste
yu mean when picasso
mix red an green
is a half-caste canvas/
explain yuself
wha u mean
when yu say half-caste
yu mean when light an shadow
mix in de sky
is a half-caste weather/
well in dat case
england weather
nearly always half-caste
in fact some o dem cloud
half-caste till dem overcast
so spiteful dem dont want de sun pass
ah rass/
explain yuself
wha yu mean
when yu say half-caste
The other tendency is more aesthetic, an attempt to play with language for either rhetorical effect (“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.”) or to convey interior mental states (James Ellroy in White Jazz: “Fever-that time burning. I want to go with the music-spin, fall with it.”) or as a formalist device (Finnegan’s Wake famously begins “riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodious vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.” and ends “A way a lone a last a loved a long the”, leaving the book without either a beginning or an end).
How should an editor, particularly a former Grammar Nazi, deal with fiction editing? What can be the aesthetic value of a looser framework of grammar, to compare with the charming assurance, sense of order and clarity championed by the Grammar Nazis?
For that, I will introduce the other half of my title: say hello to the Zen Grammarian. The Zen Grammarian has a particular perspective towards the world; she knows its mutability, and is not militantly attached to anything. She has great love for what she values, but she recognizes that as her preoccupation, as her passion, and does not demand it of anybody else. Nor does she react in horror or despair at its passing. If people will spell definitely as definately, or will say “She is taller than me”, she will be mindful of the situation and only correct them where absolutely necessary.
The Zen Grammarian knows what is important: communication and a level of comfort between those communicating, and she sees language as a tool facilitating that communication. She knows that there is nothing to be arrogant about, and that the richness of the varied uses of language can provide both delight and insight, not to mention the playfulness in tinkering with language.
The Zen Grammarian will therefore nitpick less, listen more, and give a writer the benefit of the doubt.
PS: Readers in the know will recognize that what I have described is an old debate, that between Prescriptive and Descriptive grammar, where the former tries to frame the rules and the latter tries to describe the way language is used in the world, and derive its laws from that usage. Cambridge Grammarians have done some admirable work in descriptive grammar recently, though their conviction is sometimes faintly offensive; the Student’s Introduction to English Grammar by Huddleston and Pullum is a great starting point for those interested in exploring descriptive grammar.

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