Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The Grammar Pledge

It always goes this way. Someone mentions a grammar problem -- in this case a novel, whose author is an English professor at a Seattle university, that is afflicted with dangling modifiers and even has an "it's" used as the possessive. These errors can be as distracting as a "factual" detail that isn't true or a character's action that doesn't follow or a tone shift from storytelling to preaching. It can pitch a reader utterly out of the story.

But unlike a catching a factual error or a tone shift, catching a stylistic problem (because dangling modifiers are not, strictly speaking, grammar but style) or a punctuation problem (see prior parenthesis) requires an advance apology. Mine is that I'm a grammatoholic, but I'm not trying to change.

That confession -- of interest in the finer points of language usage -- is always followed by someone who protests, "I don't know anything about grammar, and I'm a terrible speller, and I'm scared of all these people who think it's important." And then someone inevitably brings up Flannery O'Connor's saying that "Anyone who can only spell a word one way hasn't got much imagination."

There you have it. End of discussion. If you come back from that, you're not only insensitive, you're taking on Flannery O'Connor in an argument.

Well, I've got something else to say, and since it's my blog I'm going to say it. I'm talking to writers now mainly, secondarily to anyone who wants to communicate effectively, especially in writing. If you're a person of tender grammatical sensibilities and you don't fit those categories, best move along.

First, I don't care how Flannery O'Connor spelled in the drafts of her works; she was a master of the language and you don't get her dramatic effect with dangling modifiers and misused apostrophes.

Second, any writer has to care about the use of the language -- as a cook cares about food -- because that's all we have. And to say, "I don't know anything about it and I'm afraid to be told I need to learn" is a copout. It's no sin to say, "I don't know"; but "I don't know and I don't care" is an offense against oneself as a writer and against one's readers. The reader can glean our message only from what we lay out on the page. If we're not master of our message, we cannot communicate it.

And it's not that hard. I realize that the schools have been given over, by and large, to excusing "creative spelling" and "affirming" "natural" (read that, undisciplined) use of the language, so writers who graduated from such schools start at a disadvantage. But it's not quantum mechanics. Here are a few steps to start from nowhere and over time, fairly painlessly, develop a mastery of the language:
  • Stop saying, "I'm bad at grammar and spelling"; it's just an excuse for not trying. Start saying, "I'm working on my grammar and spelling."

  • Think about words -- where they came from, how they sound, what they mean. Get a good dictionary (also online) and, when looking something up -- as many unfamiliar words as possible -- look at all the definitions and the etymology, the history of the word. Ask what they have in common; ask why it's changed. The answer may not come right away, but if the question is burbling in one's brain, the answer that appears in a newspaper column or pops up in a conversation will bring the richeness of a found treasure.

  • Subscribe to A Word A Day, or something similar.

  • Buy a college grammar book -- The Complete Stylist is the best I've read, available from Amazon.com starting at 50 cents, but the Harbrace College Handbook is another, or check the shelves of the local used bookstore -- then read it cover to cover. It won't take that long, and it's not as boring as half the stuff in the daily paper (and a lot more relevant).

  • Explore the excellent grammar resources on the web. The Dictionary.com page is a good place to start, but there are many. Google your question and see what happens.

  • If you've got time, study an inflected language, such as Greek, Latin or Russian. It will expand your brain, give you a different perspective on time (literally -- every language's view of time is encapsulated in its verb tenses) and help understand the cases and genders in English. This is for extra credit.

  • Beyond that, take an interest. It doesn't require correcting your grandma when she says "lay" instead of "lie," but thinking about the difference between "lay" and "lie," and transitive and intransitive verbs (though learning the terminology is not as important as learning the principles), and that gives you control over when to use what and why. If you choose to use a word against its conventional usage, that's a choice you get to make, and as master of the word, you know what effect it will have and how that furthers your communication with the reader you have in mind.
And if you already know this stuff -- or are in the process of getting better at it -- do you want to take the pledge with me? No more apologies. I'm not a grammatoholic; I'm just a writer who takes an interest in her tools. I'm not gifted from God to understand the difference between "lay" and "lie"; I just looked it up enough times that I got it. I didn't inherit my knowledge from my rich Uncle Edgar; I got a good chunk of it scowled into me from my eighth-English teacher, Miss Babers, and if you don't have a Miss Babers in your life, I'll be it for you.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Riots help alert French police to new technologies

French police have discovered the Internet, as well as cellphones, in one of the serendipitous outcomes of nearly two weeks of boys-will-be-boys rioting.

Police were shocked to find the exuberant immigrant youths not depending on banners and bullhorns, as the student activists did in the May 1968 riots that ended up overthrowing the French government.

French authorities are trying to find someone aged 14-16, who is not involved in the riots, to explain to them how to get online.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Canada takes the lead

Team Canada
Team Denmark
Canada took the lead over Denmark last night in the newest round of International Capture the Flag, being played over Hans Island, a barren Arctic rock rumored to be somewhere between Greenland and Canada. Team Canada won two points for capturing two flags -- one flying on a flagpole and the other cleverly hidden in a barrel near the flagpole.

As required under current rules of the international competition, Canadian soldiers delivered the flags to Denmark to establish that they had gained their points.

Canada last scored in July when it erected a $2,000 flag pole and a sensitive multicultural pile of rocks on the island. The Canadian military had to fly in the 300-pound rocks by helicopter.

Using a classic stealth maneuver, Denmark later informed Canada that its flag hadn't survived. Canada disputed whether that deserved any points, but finding the two Danish flags on the island proved both the earlier Danish claim and their own.

The score seems to be 3-2 Canada, though it's hard to be sure.

The most recent round of International Capture the Flag was when England bested Argentina in the Falkland Islands match in 1982.

And that's all the news for today, sports fans.

This post is also available at Blogger News Network.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Chirac's Shakespearean crisis

The French drama has played through two acts, and we hardly noticed it.

Act I has been going on for decades. This 2002 article by Theodore Dalrymple in City Journal describes the ordinary world -- the growing discontent in the housing projects of France. Unemployment, discrimination, lack of opportunity, and bored youths who comfort themselves by affiliating with a foreign ideology that would give them power and status in a world that gives them every material necessity, but no dignity. In the growing conflict, French authorities have dealt haphazardly with rising anti-Semitic violence and have formed foreign policy around their own "Arab street."

Inciting incident: two boys think they're being chased by police, run into an electric substation and die.

In Act II, riots erupt and spread. A disabled woman is set on fire. Rioters respond to police, fire and ambulance crews with rocks and firebombs. At Day 12, a man dies.

The rest of Europe trembles, as cars are set on fire in Brussels, Belgium, and Berlin and Bremen, Germany.

The longer it goes, the more intense Chirac's crisis will be. If he had dealt with the issues years ago, with firm law enforcement and economic and social status for the peaceful immigrants, the riots would not be happening now. But instead, in typical post-modern fashion, the French authorities have treated the innocent and the guilty exactly equally -- with economic handouts on the one hand and discrimination and disrespect on the other -- which has the same effect as punishment for the innocent and reward for the guilty.

Soon we will arrive at Chirac's Shakespearean crisis: Will he do a Petain, following the 20th-century marshal who turned France over to the Nazis, or a Reno, following the U.S. attorney general who in 1993 stormed the compound of an offbeat religious sect, eventually causing a fire that killed all 76 members of the cult, including 27 children.

Either way, France is likely to be a very different place in Act III. The change will be more gradual if he goes Petain, but the radicalized Moslems will have increasing control over the government policies, as the authorities retreat and retreat to keep the same thing from happening again.

If he goes Reno -- and France has shown itself capable of brutality when French monuments are not at stake -- there will be blood in the streets and a period of active warfare with an uncertain end.

Europe will never be the same.

Monday, November 07, 2005

I'm seeing someone else

I've posted my first post on the Conciliar Press blog, The Orthodox Way, titled "'Closed Communion' or 'Communion as identity.'"

Catchy, don't you think?

That's my Monday blog.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

I need to get a new title up here

Just to show that I haven't fallen into a time warp.

In a couple of days, people won't remember who Harriet Miers was or the various transmogrifications her public character went through during her 15 minutes of fame. When all is said and done, she may be glad it was only 15 minutes, and not 27. But I wonder if the borking from the right was any less distressing than the borking from the left.

But I have nothing informative or incisive to say, so I'll let you folks move on to the next blog.