Friday, August 05, 2011

Notes from a Grammar Anarchist

I've been involved in some grammar conversations lately, and I have been reading some recent articles about grammar in Twitter posts. It has reminded me that I am the opposite of a grammar Nazi, I am a grammar anarchist. Man, I am the Che Guevara of grammar!

I hold that as long as the communication is clearly understood, standing on points of grammar is hegemonic. By that I mean that we apply somewhat arbitrary rules as codes to tell "our kind" from "them." The power class assigns the concept of "correct" to their way of speaking and "wrong" to other dialects that identify someone as not being in the power group.

Easy example: the double emphatic negative in English. No one has ever been confused by a sentence like "I don't have no money," although many English teachers pretend to be. We in power have made the somewhat arbitrary decision not to use it (Spanish, on the other hand, includes it as part of its standard grammar) and we wield that rule to sort out those who do use it. There is usually a very slippery slope that gets attached to this: Different = Wrong = Uneducated = Unintelligent.

Let's take an example that might make us a little uncomfortable. Some people pronounce the word "ask" as "aks." This is often viewed as "wrong" by people who pronounce it as spelled, and the insinuation is that the one pronouncing it "aks" lacks education or sophistication.

Instead of branding it as wrong, let's describe it for what it is: it's called a metathesis, i.e., a "transposition, more especially of the letters, sounds, or syllables of a word." There are lots of them around. But if you are a member of the power class, your metathesis is deemed "how the word is pronounced."

Everyone I know who rails against "aks," blithely pronounces the day after Tuesday as "Wenzday" as if it were spelled Wendsday. But it is spelled Wednesday and should be pronounced Wed-nes-day. After all, the day is named after Woden, not Woned. BTW, Woned is the mythical husband of Wonelly and the two of them are the German deities who go around stopping mules.

So why is "our" Wenzday right and "their" aks is wrong? They're both just examples of a common language phenomenon of metathesis.

Don't get me wrong, I'm all for speaking clearly and unambiguously, but grammar Nazis stop the conversation. Their corrections are more distracting than whatever aberration they might be attacking.

Bill: "This evening couldn't have been more perfect."
Mary: "You shouldn't modify an absolute--if something is perfect there is no way it could ever be more perfect. So will you call me tomorrow?"
Bill: "Uh, I think I'm leaving the country, yeah, I have to go on a secret mission and will be out of touch for about three years."

So here's my point: Language is pretty screwed up and is full of inconsistencies. We need to be careful when we brand our inconsistencies as "the way it is" and others as "that's wrong."


Michael Hughes said...

Just noticed that the Google Ad that got attached to this blog was for an "Instant Grammar Checker--Correct All Grammar Errors And Enhance Your Writing."

Love the capitalization; I wonder if they ran the ad through their grammar checker :-)

Milan Davidović said...

Have you seen the Wikipedia explanation for double negatives in English?