Sunday, January 11, 2015

False Starts

...Okay, I'm starting up my writing resolution NEXT week. Life happened this week as it does from time to time. The key thing about sticking to goals is not to get too depressed when you fall off the horse. Or fail to get on the horse in the first place.

Is that fragment grammatical? I think it's grammatical enough.

Grammarians annoy the shit out of me, which is probably not what you'd expect to hear from someone with a Master's degree in English who writes for a hobby.

But it's true: grammar hounds are the linguistic equivalent of meter maids. They derive unholy satisfaction from minor corrections without actually contributing anything major. They gather in packs on Facebook, do linguistic drive-by shootings at work, quip smugly...but never seem to write anything worth reading themselves.

I think it's their ahistorical nature which gets to me. What the hell is grammar anyway, but the wordly equivalent of building a sidewalk where people shortcut through a park? If one or two people cut across a lawn, they're jerks. If everybody is doing it, then you lay down a new sidewalk and that becomes the official route through the park.

And so it goes with grammar. Grammar is what grammar does. If the sum total of linguistic meanderings is a vast park, then grammatical rules are the brown lines where people have trampled the lawn flat.

Two thousand years ago, English was more like German. Indistinguishable, in fact, from the old Germanic spoken at the time. We had fine words like fuck (derived from fokken, to "knock against" or "beat"). But after a few millenium, things happened. Vikings swept through, raping and pillaging, killing, forming colonies, inter-marrying with the locals. They leave behind some words. Lawyer. Midden.

Then the Normans invaded. The language got a little more french. Miracle, attack, morale. They brought new religion with them. Latin-derivatives mix in. Crapulent. Fungus. Juvenile.

Then the general chaos of the colonial period mixed in. People traveled. Settled into new lands. We got words like "aardvark" or "gumbo." The changes in language from the colonies cross-pollinated back into the homeland, adding to the carnage. A new scholarly secular class arose who took a particular delight in making new words out of old components: conjoin, for example.

Linguistic structures change. Sounds change. Preferred word order, verb tenses, all sorts of things drift over the course of a few hundred years.

There's always an uproar amongst the anal retentive when a new word is added to some dictionary. Selfie, for example. Rubbish!

But the goal of grammar is to make your writing accessible, not proper. It's there to define something, to make better writing teachable, make sure you're making the most sense to your chosen audience.

Readers have to be able to understand your shit, dawg. You have to be aware of your audience's needs and expectations. It's absolutely necessary, particularly as an educational tool. It gets several orders of magnitude harder to teach something if you can't describe it.

But people who get their panties in a wad because you split an infinitive or use a new word you've just made up annoy me. Mostly because language is a living thing, not something carved into the side of a monument.

My favorite response to people accusing me of making up shit is that it's a word because I've just used it. I mean, you understood it, right? If I call something a shitspork, my meaning is pretty clear even if it is something my spellchecker flags instantly.

It's a tool which should be used and abused. If it works better if you bend it, bend it because the natural drift of linguistic evolution is going to do that anyway.

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