I never had any large respect for good spelling. That is my feeling yet. Before the spelling-book came with its arbitrary forms, men unconsciously revealed shades of their characters and also added enlightening shades of expression to what they wrote by their spelling, and so it is possible that the spelling-book has been a doubtful benevolence to us.
-Mark Twain, in his autobiography
I’m not a grammar nazi, I’m a grammar punk. English doesn’t have rules. That’s part of why it’s beautiful. But clarity in writing is something to be desired.
I grew up in a grammar-friendly environment. My dad is a technical writer with a keen eye for ambiguous sentences and my public school education got me into editing (yearbook and literary magazine) reasonably early.
Once, when I was eleven or twelve let’s guess, I was at a nearby school for my mom’s dance recital, and all of the printed-out signs were in both english and spanish. I wasn’t very bright, apparently, because I went to my mom the next day and said “don’t people have to learn english when they move to America?” My mom, bless her, got angry and told me that the US doesn’t have a national language, and that that is a good thing. I hadn’t realized that before. But goddam was she ever right.
Years later, I was learning to write, and I sent an article to the Earth First! Journal about an action we had done. (The action was pretty cool… we blockaded a company’s doors at lunch with thrown-out christmas trees to symbolize the forests they were responsible for clearcutting.) In my article, I used the serial comma. (The serial comma is the comma between the second-to-last item in a list and the last item in the list.) The Earth First! Journal edited the comma out. I wrote them a polite-but-firm-but-wrong email explaining that the serial comma was intentional. They wrote back to say that they edited their paper with the AP styleguide and thusly they did not use the serial comma. I hadn’t realized there wasn’t a right and wrong way to write english before that point.
I have to admit, I’ve spent some time as a grammar nazi. I was an advocate, nay a partisan, for the serial comma and for a certain set of rules to define comma use and the like. Sure, I had my indulgences–like the antiquated use of commas after an emdashed parenthetical aside–, but I was fighting for the rules.
Which made me a terrible anarchist.
By a regular grammar nazi’s guidelines, I was already unforgivably a grammar punk. I advocate they/their as a singular pronoun, eschewing s/he and his/hers. I have been consciously avoiding capitalizing the names of countries and languages for years. I kind of like “grey” better than “gray” but I want to keep using american rather than british punctuation standards. (And I tend to get along well with people who also have fierce opinions about such things.)
My progress away from grammar fascism has been slow, but today I think marks my final break from it. There is an excellent series of articles up about literary privilege that really made it clear I have been, largely, fighting the oppressor’s war for them. (read part 2 and part 3 as well).
But I’ll not put down my gun (red pen?) just yet. There’s still a war on. I’m not switching teams entirely, either. I’m not a grammar nazi, I’m a grammar punk. And like a proper punk, I will be fighting against the oppressors.
I used to think that I was too stupid to read the dense philosophical texts and translations that some of my more academically-minded anarchist friends bandied around. I had to fight my way through, sentence by sentence, to uncover meaning. And then, one day, I was copyediting Revolt and Crisis in Greece, an excellent collection of essays by the Greek group Occupied London. And I ran across an essay I expected to turn into the mire and gibberish insurrectionist/philosophical texts often become. But instead, it was… it was good. “Oh,” said the epiphany in my head, “this is what all of those other essays were trying but failed to do.”
If you believe your ideas are advancing human understandings of philosophy and politics, you’d better be damn sure your writing is up to it before you expect the rest of us to go along with it. Academic literature isn’t just dense. Density is necessary sometimes. Some ideas are fucking complex. I even understand the need for specialized vocabulary. Or the idea that in order to read book X, you might have to have read book Y (though if you ask me, the author of book X is being damn lazy). But a lot (not all) of academic literature is just plain badly-written, full of sentences that don’t express what they are intended to express. Ambiguous writing.
The point of grammar is clarity. If a sentence is understood, it is properly formed. If it is not, it has failed. I don’t care if your sentence is technically correct. What matters is whether or not it carries its meaning. Some guidelines exist to help us communicate, but they are not chains. Let no one wield them against us as such.
As Scroobius Pip says:
“thou shalt spell the word “Pheonix” p-h-e-o-n-i-x, and not p-h-o-e-n-i-x, regardless of what it says in the Oxford English Dictionary.”
May we all be so brave.
Other posts on writing: