Monday, August 17, 2015

Grammar sins: To care or not to care?

Years ago, when American Idol was relevant, several friends of mine asked me if I liked the show. Particularly, they wanted to know if I liked the auditions.

Except by "asked" and "wanted to know," I mean that their inquiries were more confident than either of those phrases would imply. It usually went a like this:

"I bet you love the auditions!"
"Oh, I just know you've gotta love laughing at those poor losers who can't sing!"
"Aren't Simon's criticisms hilarious?"

And the answer to all of those questions was no, no and NO again. The auditions for American Idol made me feel incredibly uncomfortable, but people assumed I enjoyed them. Why? Well, because I sing. I was among the stronger singers in my peer group and there was this unspoken assumption that because of that, I must identify with those who were successful in the auditions and see myself as superior to those who weren't. But this assumption was incredibly far off.

While there were always a few downright awful contestants, a lot of the people getting belittled on the show were simply people who weren't good enough. Under the lens of national television, their deficiencies were amplified. Some of these people (I am guessing) probably could sing okay when they followed along with an accompaniment. Or when they had a friend nearby to help them stay on key.

Or maybe they were singing the wrong genre. Singing is not as much of an "all around" skill as it might seem and some people struggle to find their niche. In my case, my voice and training lend themselves to show tunes. I can assure you that if I ever had auditioned for American Idol (or the Canadian version) I would have been turned away and called either uninteresting or pitchy. I suck at Pop music.

But even if it wasn't the case that I, personally, would not benefit from the praise of the gatekeepers of reality TV, it bugged me on a more fundamental level that society was getting its jollies laughing at people brave enough to fail on the national stage. We live in a culture that loves shaming people for not being good at things, crossing our fingers that there will be an extra measure of pride showcased before they fall. I get why that narrative is appealing. I get why we love to see braggarts put in their place and I am certainly not above delighting in the misfortunes of those that "deserve" them.

But I also think it's extremely dangerous to do this if we want to encourage a boldly creative population. Every time we laughed at an unsuccessful audition we were, in some sense, reassuring ourselves for not taking the same risk. Thank heaven we didn't try! The world could have been laughing at us.

Today, I don't believe myself alone in feeling this way about American Idol. That particular style of shaming has fallen out of vogue. But you want to know what is alive and well? The Grammar Police. And I feel about 95% the same way about them.

As in the American Idol situation, people love to assume I have a vested interest in grammar. And I do. Sort of. I need to know how to use it properly for my job (writing) and by understanding it well, I learn how to effectively subvert the rules.

But I do not give two figs about how you say the word "supposedly." I couldn't care less if you could care less. I have no opinion on the Oxford Comma. And lamentably, if you are among my Grammar Police friends (and I have many of you), I will not be your comrade in snarking about these offenses.

I admit, some of my bile for the Grammar Police is irrational. More often than not, they're an inoffensive bunch. They're that kid who got you to say the word "underwear" just by asking you, "hey, what's under there?" (Additional true statement: The Grammar Police spend their time off the beat in donut shops, speaking in nothing but well-timed puns) But I do worry that the Grammar Police are handing out more tickets than necessary. If we want people's use of the English language to improve, often we need LESS policing. Not more. Or at least... better policing.

Here's the deal: In my view, improper grammar is a lot like sketching in pencil before reaching for a paint brush or pen. You want the lines down there to guide you, but you don't necessarily need them in the exact place. Agonizing over exact line placement in the sketching stage could potentially kill your ability to communicate movement in the figure. It's only when you're putting on permanent details that the lines need to be right.

The same goes for speech and writing. Most things we say casually are not permanent. Speech is an ideal time to experiment with language and listen to your own words. Agonizing over grammar might impede your ability to communicate and might kill the flow of your natural voice. The trick, however, is to be self-aware. If you want to change the way you speak - improve at public speaking,  or learn how to make a room laugh - then you will need to be able to reflect on the results you get from what you say. And that immediate feedback will be the rules and grammar that you personally need to follow.

Even more important, if you are someone seriously considering improving your writing, you need to throw your Grammar Police hat out the window. You will not type fast enough with it on. You will not think fast enough with it on. Drafting is ALL about experimentation. It's about making errors and daring to be bad at something, all in the hopes of getting good at it eventually.

One of the most consistent pieces of writing advice I've received concerns this sketchy, drafting phase. When drafting, forward motion is WAY more important than getting it "right." You will have to edit. Extensively. I promise. But your edits will be less meaningful if you do not have the story on the page. Assuming for the moment you're writing fiction, what if you discover that the scene you're working on needs to be cut from the story? All the fussy editing you did to that scene will vanish. Save that energy for when you've got a basic product to work with. Spotless grammar is only useful to you in a finished product, when the work of substance has long been completed.

And while this might sound extreme, I stand by my belief that using language incorrectly is an essential part of developing a creative sensitivity towards it. Most of the writers I know are NOT grammar police. They're willing to play fast and loose with language. They're the people who do things like this:

Writer: I literally died when Joey came in the room!
Friend: Holy crap, did you really just say that? You are still alive so you don't actually mean "literally."
Writer:............ No, I do mean literally. I died. I went to heaven. They have orange soda there. Then someone gave me CPR and I came back to life. IN THE ROOM. I cam back to life in the room and Joey was STILL THERE!!! AND SINCE HE WAS THERE I LITERALLY DIED AGAIN!!!!! LITERALLY LITERALLY LITERALLY!!!!

(Additional true statement: Writers are obnoxious twerps)

And in a backwards sort of way, this is where the Grammar Police do have their value. Let them correct you. Let them teach you. Then try to think through how they could be wrong. Because you're not actually understanding grammar unless you're able to envision a way in which that person, with all their rules and check boxes, could be flat out, deliciously wrong. So fight back and get creative.

I want to reiterate that I DO see the value in clear, crisp, beautiful grammar in a finished product. I re-edit my blog entries periodically for no reason other than that I want them to look nice. I want them to be precise. When it comes to precise meaning, nothing can beat well used grammar.

If you're getting a tattoo, get your grammar straight. If your grammar is so bad, it legitimately impedes your ability to communicate, then yes, improve your grammar. If you're writing a paper for class, you need an exceptionally good reason for ignoring ANY rule of grammar, which means you will need to know the rules. Don't stress out about your text messages. Come up with your own policy on Facebook posts. Accept that everyone sounds like an idiot occasionally on Twitter. But don't let anyone stop you from communicating or using words that confuse you. Use them. Use them wrong. Replay them in your head. Figure them out. We live in a world where people recognize more words than they ever dare speak. Don't be among the silent. Stick those "word-a-day-calendar" words into your conversations and shrug your shoulders when they don't come out right. Write the word you want to use even if you can't spell it. You will learn. I promise.

One more important thing about grammar: To love grammar is to love a changeable thing, but most people who love grammar do NOT love it's changeability. And this rigidity sometimes does nothing more than stifle the natural progression of language. Take, for instance, the word "they" - a legitimate, gender neutral way of indicating a single individual in a sentence. The need for him/her is behind us. I've checked and re-checked this one because people keep trying to "ding" me on it. Style guides might still tell you to avoid it, but not because it is incorrect. Instead, you're counseled to avoid it because people THINK it is incorrect. And heaven forbid this happen to you:

You: I love the present my Secret Santa gave me! I'm going to give them a hug when I find out their identity.
Grammar Police Co-Worker: You mean you'll hug HIM/HER when you find out HIS/HER identity!!!!
You:......................................... seriously?

I'll admit, this entry has been ranty. If you are a proud member of the Grammar Police, know that I am more than happy to "agree to disagree." You are among those who bring a great skill set and depth of knowledge to discussions around language. Value and love your grammar. But if possible, could we maybe make the discussion about teaching rather than shaming? There are a lot of bright, clever people out there who don't feel that way because they haven't figured out the rules you play by.

This is my feeling: We need more people grappling with semi-colons. We need more people who sing in public. We need more people who mess up dance steps. We need less shame. We need more failure. It's the only way to open the door to success.

1 comment:

  1. Nice ranting! Literally. As in not mean. Ha ha.

    I'm more of a grammar ride-along. I don't know all the rules and certainly don't always abide by the the ones I do, but I'll still make fun of the painfully obvious things (to me anyway) like apostrophe's in the wrong places (yes, that was done on purpose) or the affect/effect switcharoo.

    As usual, enjoyed the post.