The biggest fight I ever lost was with a linguist…
The biggest fight I ever lost was with a linguist.
I can’t remember his name right now, but somewhere in the early 2000’s, I met a friend of a friend who tried to convince me that grammar, usage, and mechanics were silly, passing conventions, for there was no universal “right” or “wrong” to language.
He was one of those undergrad-straight-to-grad school folks who would know it all for another ten years or so. If he had argued the sky is blue, I would have been tempted to prove it isn’t. That said, the heart of his position also irritated me. With clinical, medical remove—without even the slightest sign of grief—he deconstructed the rules of the language I adore.
He was the witch king, and I was Eowyn. He was Derrida, and I was C.S. Lewis. He was a purple-prosey-God-is-snuggly mom blogger, and I was The Pulpit and Pen.
So, I let him have it.
I can’t remember the arguments I made at the time, but whatever I said was emotional and stupid. I was my daughter at 5 years old, arms crossed over her chest, declaring she hated Thomas McWherty because he had a face that always looked like it needed someone to punch it.
All these years later, however, I have to admit—that jerk was at least a little bit right. Transposing Spenser has pushed me into the Oxford English Dictionary daily, and I’ve learned so much hacking through those weeds. Of course, I’d used the OED for decades, and I’ve always loved it. But being forced to trace word after word through time, day after day, has made me so much more aware of how fluid the words we use actually are.
A lot of “word people” had a pedantic English teacher somewhere along the way—a withering social misfit who lived and breathed commas in all the right places. Her salty confidence made her radiant against the black, beastly chaos of middle school. We left her classes thinking, “My nose might be bad; I might have no muscle tone in my legs; I might not know the latest bands; I might wear the wrong tennis shoes—but by George, I can learn the difference between a gerund and a participle.”
Grammar is something dweebs can master. Here is an offer of identity—proof that “they” are perpetually wrong. Here is proof that the betas are superior to the alphas in some undeniable way.
And here’s a gross confession. There’s still a black little serpentine part of my heart which delights in pulling out that dagger. I’m not a grammar ninja, but I can fight scrappy and break an arm here or there. When a political or ideological opponent shows up with a face that needs punching, I can usually find a comma splice to put him in his place. (Please read that last sentence in a Napoleon Dynamite voice.) Most of the time, however, that’s a dirty way to fight, and I know it. It’s an attempt to humiliate, not to confront a principle forthrightly.
After working on Spenser, I am so much more aware that technical flaws that used to irk me (like verbing nouns, local or youthful slang, and quirky colloquialisms of pronunciation) are normal parts of the ebb and flow of language. If word-making has a physics to it, its rules are liquid. They are not solid.
Of course, language is not gas. It sticks together with a little coherence while it rolls around in a glass. And there are certain deep principles that seem to bind most of the languages I’ve studied through time to a core.
But many of the micro-nuances of linguistic form—the ones we beat our chests about—are always shifting, always conforming, always redirecting like floodwaters through a city street. Gripe all we want about convention, if the flow of humanity flows hard enough long enough toward a change, the standing structures will fall, and a new “correct” will grow up.
Why study the rules then?
Oddly, I’m coming to the same nucleus in language that has begun to center me in theology, in politics, in relationships. Heuristics. What works? What produces the best results?
Clarity in language is ultimately a form of kindness. To use the rules of a culture demonstrates benevolence. Conversely, to demand to be understood without making the necessary effort to learn and speak the common tongue is both lazy and selfish.
That rules change doesn’t negate the need or the value of rules. Grammar is love. Usage is humility. Mechanics is washing the feet of another. But I’m starting to wonder if compassionate, ethical appeals are the only worthy arguments for such protocol.
Once I read an etiquette book claiming that a visitor of Queen Elizabeth II picked up the wrong fork at a state dinner—an error which all the other guests noticed immediately. Without missing a beat, the Queen picked up the wrong fork as well, recognizing that the heart of manners is congenial welcome, not proving one’s own training in rules.
I’ve seen this sort of humble kindness manifested in my favorite grammar gurus. While they don’t adopt bad grammar to make others feel better, they do extend tremendous tenderness to those who make mistakes.
Jonathan Rogers may pretend to be a heartless rascal, but dozens of times, I’ve watched him overlook an obvious error to listen to the intent of a communicator. And when he teaches others to write, he does so from generosity, not legalism. (Sign up for his classes, by the way. Link at the bottom.) While studying Spenser, I’m starting to see how many layers of true wisdom reside in such a posture.
Among the hundreds of other good things I’ve learned while deep in The Faerie Queene, I’ve begun to see how a writer should feel about the rules of language. These are tools for service, not proof of worth. We can do good with them, or we can do harm. With great power comes great responsibility? That’s sort of Spider Man and sort of Jesus. And I think somewhere in there might be a commission from the Lion who used words to sing the universe into being.