Thursday, August 13, 2009

Apocalyptic Horses and Grammar Nazis

As I drove home from my sister’s place in Maryland, I thought a lot about grammar. Ten hours is a long time to reflect on something as geeky as grammar, I know. Long car rides send my reflective brain to strange places.

GrammarLand was not, however, the strangest place my brain went on the drive. I spent an interesting half-hour contemplating the fiberglass animals I saw on the back of a low flatbed trailer. The first animal I noticed in this unlikely menagerie on I-68 was a rather smallish bison. Having seen many real and scary-looking bison in Yellowstone, I know how big an adult can grow, which is about as big as the super cab pickup hauling these weird animal statues.

Accompanying the miniature brown bison were two painted, life-size horses…one in the same brown as the bison and the other sort of reddish. Then I noticed two totally white, unpainted horses, which of course made me think of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse. Were the colors right? I thought they were all white, but perhaps I was mistaken, especially because the Book of Revelation gives me the heebie-jeebies and thus rarely enters my mind unless four fiberglass horses appear out of nowhere on I-68.

Perhaps these four really were the biblical harbingers of doom, sans riders, of course. Their fiberglass legs looked spindly. What would happen if they snapped and fiberglass horse parts went flying all over I-68? I felt an irrational urge to pass the trailer just to be on the safe side.

As I accelerated past the trailer, I noticed a small unpainted fiberglass pig tucked beside the bison. Pig butts are funny enough to push all thought of the Apocalypse from my mind. When I finished chuckling, I started thinking about nonrestrictive modifiers and passive voice again.

You might think nonrestrictive modifiers and passive voice are far less interesting than fiberglass pig butts, but you’d be wrong. A recent thread in the General Stamping Forum at SplitcoastStampers reminded me that grammar is a highly controversial subject which flares tempers and turns some people into elitist, arrogant grammar Nazis preserving the purity of the rules they learned in seventh-grade English.

Problem is, some of those lessons are WRONG. Sorry about the all-caps yelling, but nothing provokes my ire like people who slavishly follow rules, even when some of those rules don’t exist.

I used to be one of these arrogant Nazis from GrammarLand. At the experienced age of seventeen, I informed a hapless park ranger of a misspelling on a park sign: “picnicing” should have been “picnicking.” He looked at me as if I were an alien from another planet, which was my first clue that my obsession with grammar and spelling probably exceeded the bounds of normalcy.

Eventually, I went to graduate school and taught the dreaded Freshman Composition. During my first few nerve-racking weeks teaching, a student asked me why I added commas to a sentence in her paper. I couldn’t remember the exact rule, which made me panic for a few seconds. I knew the commas belonged around that particular clause, but saying “because I said so” would have been pedagogical suicide. Instead, I said, “Let me show you how to look this up in your grammar handbook.” I did, and that was how my student learned (and I relearned) the rule on commas around nonrestrictive modifiers.


That night, I read the entire grammar handbook to refresh my memory. The experience taught me the power of internalizing rules so completely that you forget them. Each rule I reviewed seemed like an old friend. “Hello, Nonrestrictive Clause That Takes Commas. Good to see you again! How have you been?” But really, these rules had been with me all along, hanging out in my unconscious mind working their magic and earning me good grades.

Grammar rules serve a noble purpose: they allow people to communicate as clearly as possible in a highly imperfect world. Communication under the best circumstances is fraught with peril. It’s so easy to be misunderstood…and so painful.

Some so-called rules, however, are not rules at all. They start as recommendations arising from common stylistic errors. For instance, many of my students believed with near-religious fanaticism that they should never, ever, under any circumstances start a sentence with and or but. When I corrected this misunderstanding, many students simply refused to believe me.

I felt deep kinship with the high school biology teacher whose ultra-conservative Christian student refused to believe that men and women have the same number of ribs.

Strunk and White’s superbly succinct book, The Elements of Style, includes a section titled “Avoid a succession of loose sentences,” which discusses the overuse of and, but, and other words that weaken the rhetorical effectiveness of writing. Beginning writers often resort to wordy, sloppy writing simply because the teacher assigns a word-count to their papers. The more useless words a student sprinkles around the paper, the more quickly he or she reaches that magic number of words to complete the assignment.

Reading wordy, pointless essays forces tortured seventh-grade English teachers to make broad, sweeping, self-defensive declarations like “Never start a sentence with and or but.” Students prefer clear and absolute rules like this to Strunk and White’s “avoid a succession of loose sentences.” What is a “loose sentence” anyway? It sounds vaguely dirty, doesn’t it?

Interestingly, Strunk and White generally object to the use of however at the beginning of a sentence. They state, “Avoid starting a sentence with however when the meaning is ‘nevertheless.’ The word usually serves better when not in the first position.” Notice that they qualify their injunction with the word usually.

Almost any rule can be broken if breaking it makes rhetorical sense. Would you correct the grammar, usage, and spelling Mark Twain deploys in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn? Perish the thought! Twain skillfully uses vernacular to develop characters and lend realism to the setting and atmosphere of his novel.

Sort of like this blog.

See what I mean? I used a sentence fragment to emphasize the transition in topic. If this were a scholarly essay, I might have written, “Twain’s use of language to reinforce verisimilitude and offset pretentious delivery of the novel’s main message sets a precedent for twenty-first century web log authors whose rhetorical situation requires them to minimize the division between writer and audience, to bring writer and audience together metaphorically as friends chatting over cups of tea, much as Huck converses informally with his audience.”

I bet you prefer the fragment.

Language Nazis (like my young and silly self) have either lost or not yet learned perspective, and they inflate grammar and spelling errors to assume apocalyptic importance. They accost park rangers, send indignant emails to bloggers who dare misspell a word, and post unintentionally ironic comments on internet forums promoting rules that don’t exist.

Errors appear in even the most accomplished and meticulous writer’s work. Bloggers are rarely meticulous. If I spent as much time proof-reading and style-checking each blog post as I spent on my academic writing, I’d only be able to post once a month. Instead, I sit at my laptop and type like I talk, only funnier because I can go back and change things and reword and exaggerate for comic effect. This means I bend, break, and ignore many rules that I followed fanatically when I wrote my geeky master’s thesis. If I wrote my blog like I wrote my geeky master’s thesis, it’s unlikely you would read it. I wouldn’t.

The geek in me, however, couldn’t let go of the four possibly apocalyptic fiberglass horses on the flatbed. After a bit of research, I’m relieved to report that they were not a sign of the end of times. The Book of Revelation states that only one of the apocalyptic horses is white. The others are black, red, and pale (whatever that means). Not a bison-brown one in the lot.

What a relief.


  1. Brilliant, Susan! You should go on more 10-hour road trips, if this is the fruit of such endeavors. :-) I LOVE this phrase: "turns some people into elitist, arrogant grammar Nazis preserving the purity of the rules they learned in seventh-grade English." Well said! I also loved your apt description of the informality of blogs. It's so true. Who has the time to double- and triple-check every blog post the way we would a formal essay or writing assignment? Bravo all around!

  2. My wonderful editing professor in journalism school told us we should plan on reading Strunk and White's style "bible" every year. Since I had a similar deer-in-the- headlight experience with one of the students I tutor (I actually felt my heart palpitate when I couldn't come up with a reason for a particular grammar or punctuation rule), I would have benefitted from her advice, although I do still refer to the book. Susan, you would enjoy "Eats, Shoots & Leaves," by Lynn Truss. If anyone can make the quest for proper grammar and punctuation humorous, she can!

  3. I'm taking "Eats, Shoots, and Leaves" to the pool with me today. It's been on my shelf unread for far too long. Thanks for nudging me, Sharon!

  4. Fun to read. I can never remember the actual rules or grammar terms I learned in seventh grade. I prefer the "write as you would talk" style. Nevertheless, obnoxiously poor grammar bugs me. Spelling errors, however, drive me nuts. I always want to get a red pen and circle them. In this era of spell check, there are no excuses!
    Feel free to correct my grammar here...I won't be offended.


Thanks so much for taking time to comment!