Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Forget your fancy manners/Forget your English grammar

Now look, it's hard for me to write fairly about this, because I am who I am, and I DO notice these things and know how they work. You won't see me confusing "who" and "whom" or sticking apostrophes where they don't belong or using unnecessary quotation marks. You WILL see me violating those arbitrary rules based on Latin, but fuck a buncha infinitives anyway. The point is, I KNOW them.

So I DO indeed notice language errors, and I won't claim that they don't bother me on a non-rational level, or that I don't, consciously or not, judge people based upon these things (although I'm substantially MORE judgmental about instant-messenger-style cavespeak, really). But that's my own neurosis, and I see no reason why the world should be required to BOW BEFORE MY LEET SKILLZ. If any action needs to be taken, the action should consist of getting over it, and it should be undertaken by me.

This isn't to say that there's anything particularly wrong with wanting language to follow its own rules--we as humans like to have that sense of order, don't we? I enjoy it when I find myself noting and following an especially picky rule in my own writing. It's fun for me, and probably for a lot of people. And no, it's not all that fun to be assaulted by error after error after error in student writing. But I can't help but find obsessive sticklers of the Eats Shoots and Leaves variety substantially more obnoxious than the rule-breakers whom they're attempting to school. They're always so goddamn smug, as though their personal linguistic sensibilities--which are usually more class markers than anything that they consciously developed--somehow makes them better people than the great unwashed masses. Oh look--you noticed that it should be "ten items or fewer." So what? Do you want some sort of prize? Would you like to write a paragraph for me in which you explain WHY exactly this is an affront to all that's good and decent--a paragraph that does NOT reference your own particular sensibilities? You can't do it, my friends. David Foster Wallace was a stickler, but he was also self-aware about it; it's no coincidence that the mother in Infinite Jest--in whom this behavior manifests itself--is also a psychosexual mess.

One should try to follow the rules because, like it or not, they are a signifier of social status. That's just the way it is. It's an important factor that shouldn't be ignored. But let's be honest: that's really the ONLY reason. "Because it offends my particular tastes" isn't going to carry much weight, as well it shouldn't. And otherwise, what does it matter if someone writes "your" for "you're" or uses quotation marks for "emphasis?" Sticklers will assert that poor usage obscures meaning. And sure, occasionally this is true, in which case it should be corrected. Emphasis on occasionally, however. Because really, who's fooling whom? That's nothing more than a convenient smokescreen to hide behind. Ninety percent of the time usage errors, in context, don't cause any confusion whatsoever. Sure, it sounds off to me when people use "infer" for "imply," but that doesn't mean I don't know what they're trying to say. "I want to thank my parents, Jesus and Ayn Rand" is funny, but stop pretending that it somehow confuses you, goddamnit! It just makes you even more irritating. It's disingenuous and not particularly flattering to you personally when you pretend that you're too dimwitted to understand a sign that says "children drive slowly."

"The English language is going to devolve and we'll all become uncultured troglodytes!" is the other plaint. This too is misguided. Language evolves because of how people use it. If it is decided by popular consensus that we don't need to distinguish between "there" and "their," then distinguish we won't--end of story. Grammarians pushing back ain't gonna have nothin' to do with it. It has always been thus. It's okay. Really, it is. People like to communicate, and they aren't going to legislate rules that are important for communication out of existence. We'll still be able to infer things, even if we don't do it in the same way. I like "whom," but I'm not going to try to make a case that its neglect represents a great loss. We'll be able to get along just fine without it.

The status marker thing IS important, and for this reason, it's a good idea to have a basic grasp of these rules. But please, people: stop acting like it's some sort of moral imperative. Okay okay--you don't like bad grammar. FINE. Neither do I. But that doesn't make us in some ill-defined way morally superior to people just don't care.


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