A Reluctant Grammarian Goes Over to the Dark Side

imagesBecause I was dream-ridden, impractical and enjoyed reading, I majored in English without giving future employment a nanosecond’s consideration. Not adept at linear thinking (or delayed gratification), I floated day-to-day through the eight seasons of my undergraduate career bullshitting, wooing, drinking, reefering, eating cafeteria food, listening to and talking about music, reading, writing papers, and studying (not necessarily in that order).

Something would come up or happen or not.

No way did I ever envision myself as a future high or middle school teacher. I recall my pre-undergraduate days, not with nostalgia, but with a feeling of good-riddance, like Japanese Californians might look back on their internment during WW2.

Ironically, my English class in the 8th grade was what I dreaded most each day: constructing mobile-like diagrams of stilted workbook sentences or splashing misspelled words between prim blue lines as I stacked one atop the other five mechanically engineered paragraphs.

Sometimes I foolishly envied my teachers because I thought they didn’t suffer the anxiety I did (they seemed to have their shit together), but no way did I ever even remotely consider expending

hours . . .

days . . .

years . . .

decades . . .

in concrete-block enclosures forcing kids to read the Fireside Poets.

Nevertheless, I am an English teacher, which means, alas, people who don’t know me well think I might judge them on the standardization of their grammar, whether spoken or written. I try to reassure them that I digs the vernacular, that they can feel free to split infinitives, confuse lie with lay, end sentences with prepositions. It’s all good/well with me.

I could [not] care less (unless they confuse number with amount [petty] or use literally to mean figuratively [deadly]).*

Nevertheless, me, myself and I-and-I hesitate to violate grammatical rules in written language, even though I know the best prose sounds as if like someone’s talking to you.

See what I mean? Grammar books teach that one in written language should not introduce a clause (as in the sentence above) with the preposition “like,” but you sound like some stilted schoolmarm if you use “as if,” not to mention, one. In fact, I violate the subordinate pronoun rule in the last clause of the last sentence of paragraph 3 – like Japanese Californians might look back on their internment during WW2.

Truth be told, I had to spend some time getting that clause right. I’d prefer a singular antecedent – a Japanese Californian – but I didn’t want the clutter of singular gender specific pronouns like his and her  – however, I also didn’t want to drop the pronoun altogether as in like a Japanese Californian might look back on internment because the rhythm wasn’t quite right. After a bit of praying and fasting, I ended up opting for a plural antecedent Californians so I could correctly use “their.”

In fact, I’m almost at the point of endorsing plural neuter pronouns like they and their as a practical, ear-pleasing alternatives to cluttering sentences with hises and herses.

Compare this cliché with its politically correct alternatives:

A measure of a man is his

A measure of a wo/man is his or her

A measure of a person is his of her [or his/her]

A measure of a person is their

I’m thinking the last one might be best. It doesn’t suggest that women are subsets of men, it doesn’t bring attention to the differences between the two, and it doesn’t clutter/ruin the rhythm of the sentence. Obviously, it’s grammatically wrong, but to most people it doesn’t sound wrong.

After all, the construction “I’m a good ventriloquist, ain’t I” makes more grammatical sense than “I’m a good ventriloquist, aren’t I?”

After all, I are a ventriloquist extraordinaire.

*”I contradict myself?  So I contradict myself.  A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” sez Ralph Waldo.

5 thoughts on “A Reluctant Grammarian Goes Over to the Dark Side

  1. Having taught in three foreign countries and in three US schools I have observed that, like you and I, most US teachers did not start out to be teachers. In contrast, the majority of those foreign teachers I met did. I believe it is due to the low esteem teachers and education in general get in the US. For example, in Canada it is almost as hard to get into programs to be a teacher as it is to get into M. D. programs. In the US you hear those who can do, those who can’t do teach. In other places you hear those who teach teach those how to do.

  2. This puts me in mind of something I find myself occasionally pondering.

    Perhaps you don’t remember calling me a grammar Nazi in 1990; I certainly deserved the appellation then. In college I majored in linguistics and, as you seem to have done, became a descriptivist as regards other people’s language while remaining largely a prescriptivist as regards mine.

    I don’t know if controversies over gender have reached the south yet, but up here in the godless north a few people have started changing their own pronouns—that is, specifically requesting that they be referred to as, e.g., “they” or “hir” (the subject pronoun of which is “ze”). While I have yet to refer in writing to any such, when that occasion arises I’ll be happy to do so using their preferred language, though I’m probably insecure enough that I’ll also include a joke about it, to prove that I know what’s grammatically correct. I’ve also made a kind of peace with “trans” for “transgender.”

    But what I still have trouble with is “trans*” instead of “trans.” In my heart I know that if somebody identifies as “trans*” then that’s how s/h/ze/they should be referred to, but somehow punctuation feels more serious than number or creating new words, and requiring the asterisk makes me feel put upon. (I also write “Hallowe’en” and “Hawai’i,” for what it’s worth).

    Your thoughts?

    • Growing up considering grammar a class distinction has hurt my writing, at least as informal essays go. Pulling off a conversational tone is almost impossible for me because even something as innocuous as ending a sentence with a preposition doesn’t feel right.

      As far as pronouns go, I think it was you who turned me on to Pinker, and I recently read his book on 21th Century style and have adapted his female singular pronoun rule to avoid non-agreement. And, of course, I’ll use whatever pronoun transgender people prefer, but I have no patience with “hir” etc. Nor can I stand dangling apostrophes in given names. I’m an old man now, and lots of these idiosyncratic demands strike me as narcissistic.

      By the way, I may have told you this already, but every year at graduation in the Bennett Award speech I give you a shout out for post graduate publications.

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