When grammar isn’t grammar, but something else

(And a digression at the end)

I’ve been involved in several discussions over the years about this particular issue, and I remain unmoved. I hold to the belief that it does no one any good to continue to conflate “grammar,” “usage,” “mechanics,” “syntax,” and “style” into one big blob called “grammar.”

Because it’s not true, it’s not accurate, and it’s not helpful in the long run—to anyone who wants to truly understand their language. (I won’t say “English,” only because how rude is that? EVERY language has grammar and syntax.) Continue reading “When grammar isn’t grammar, but something else”

Pronouns are personal

By which I mean, people get to choose their pronouns. Now that the breaking down of the gender binary is in full swing (and I hope it keeps right on breaking, personally), if someone identifies as NB (nonbinary, or enby), they get to choose “they” if that’s how they want to be referred to. (I’ll wager there are other flavors involved, like genderfluid, but as a bi cis woman, I don’t get to claim I know anything. I’ve seen it discussed, and the conversation’s far from over.)

So, when a professional editor tells an author (one they’re going to publish!) that “they” is unacceptable and that gendered pronouns must be used in the author’s bio (IN THEIR OWN BIO!), well …

Twitter drags them. And rightly so.

I wrote two tweets in response to this mess. The first one had my usual vulgarity (because yes, I believe this is utter bullshit and I call it like I see it); the second was written in a higher register, with more formal word choices and tone (but I still used singular they, ja you betcha). Why? Because of a related issue. At least I see they’re related. Actually, there are three that come to mind.

One is policing people’s language and word choice to reinforce the status quo. I suppose I get this one on level, maybe. But honestly, who is being harmed by someone choosing to be called “they/them?” Who’s injured by that? No one. Oh, sure, you can tell me it’s “harming the language.”

Guess what. It’s not doing any such thing.

Another is using your platform (as a editor, a publisher, a reviewer, whatever) to tell someone that your English is better and therefore YOU are better. That’s what happens when someone denies someone else the choice of a pronoun set. It’s classist (“I speak properly, you don’t”) and it’s phobic (“I’m straight and cis, and you’re something else, and that scares me so no, you can’t use those pronouns”).

It’s unethical and it’s rude (and it’s outmoded). I’ll bet you all know that “they” has been used in the singular since the 1300s. EIGHT HUNDRED YEARS. And a considerable amount of that usage has been printed and published.

Then there’s the “they never whine about ‘you,’ so why are they mad about ‘they?'” contingent. Well, they don’t whine about “you” because that particular change has been over and done (and the singular usage established) for nearly as long, coinciding with the Early Modern English years (roughly the Tudor and Stuart dynasties, or mid-1450s through early 1700s).

I’m no linguist, nor do I play one on TV. But I’ll take a shot in the dark at this. I wonder if the big pushback against “they” as a singular pronoun has to do with gender. Bear with me.

“You” and “ye” are/were second-person pronouns. “Ye” was singular, “you” plural. Here’s the thing: when you’re speaking to another person, you don’t NEED to specify their gender. (Oh DeAr GoDs A sInGuLaR “tHeIr”) You’re right there with them, looking at them. And with the plural, it doesn’t matter anyway. We don’t use gender markers with second-person pronouns. Only with third-person (he/him/his and she/her/hers, but the plural is they/them/theirs).

That fear of “not knowing if they’re male or female or what” is, I think, what’s keeping the fire lit under the cauldron of singular they.

Why is it so scary? They are who they are. You are who you are. I am who I am.

What’s scary about that?

Third, there’s the register issue. Formal registers use formal grammar and language and diction (word choices). Informal ones use casual forms. My first tweet contained the word “bullshit” twice. And you know what? I’m positive (and I do mean positive) that some folks brushed it off because of that word. Surely a professional, a former English teacher, would never, ever use such language. Therefore, this person (me!) must not really be a professional.

Guess what. Professionals curse. A LOT. And on Twitter? Boy, howdy. That’s like a big backyard party, with folks coming and going and just chatting and being themselves. I curse on Twitter, especially when I get angry about something. And ESPECIALLY when that something is a professional in my field (editing) behaving badly toward an author.

However, I decided this morning to RT the original tweet again, and this time my comment was in a far more formal register. (I still used a singular they, because TAKE THAT, ENGLISH TEACHER BRAIN!) And I noticed that a different group of people interacted with that one. Now, that could be merely a case of them not seeing last night’s tweet. But, it could just as well be a case of them choosing not to give attention to that one because of the language, and interacting with the “proper” one instead.

I dunno.

And I honestly don’t care. I’m not being harmed by it, and neither is anyone else. I choose my words as I see fit, taking many factors into account. I said basically the same thing in both comments, but one was more personal (“find a different publisher because this is bullshit”) and the other more formal (“it’s a breach of ethics and trust to deny an author the right to choose the pronouns they want used in their own bio”).

And I’m standing by all of it.

[There has been a non-apology issued by the publisher, by which I mean it was mealy-mouthed: “we had no idea” (you did, once the author pointed it out to you, but you ignored it and dug in) and “we apologize for any pain we may have caused” but without a direct “We’re sorry, and we’ll do better” to the wronged author. Ugh]

The requisite end-of-year post, or “four books I read this year and think you will enjoy”

I’m the first to admit I don’t read for pleasure nearly as much as I’d like. That’s something to work on in the coming year. However, of the handful of books I did read this year, I’ve chosen four I think will interest most of you.

They’re in alphabetical order by author’s last name. No favoritism, nothing hinky going on. I decided to organize them by some normal, rational method. (That should tell you how important I think they are.)

The Joy of Syntax, June Casagrande. The grammar lovers among you need this book. I mean, NEED it. This is the deep stuff you know you should know (it even says so in the subtitle!), but it’s not intimidating. At all. If the thought of opening Greenbaum or Huddleston & Pullum scares the bejeezus out of you, this is the book you want. (I own both of those, too. I’ve used them, but I use this more.) It’s written in her trademark style, as if you’re sitting on her porch sipping a cool drink on a hot day and chatting. You know, about infinitives and clauses and the subjunctive mood. As one does.

I particularly like this, the final paragraph from Part 1, Chapter 1 (“Who’s in Charge Here?”): “A great deal of modern-day grammar confusion stems from people not understanding the role of style guides. Their rules are not meant as definitive statements on what’s right or wrong. They simply work as playbooks to be followed by anyone who wants to follow them. But the rest of us are not bound by them—a fact some people fail to understand.”

You Are What You Speak, Robert Lane Greene. The subtitle tells you what you need to know about this one: “Grammar Grouches, Language Laws, and the Politics of Identity.” The introduction’s by John McWhorter. With only eight chapters, this book packs a lot of punch into a small space, covering language myths, peeververein (my preferred term instead of “sticklers”), linguistics, nationalism (“You live here now, so speak X”), language legislation, and alternative ways of considering language, in addition to a few topics I haven’t mentioned.

I give you two quotes, because I have to limit myself somehow, don’t I? “Language is too enjoyable to get so angry about it” is the first. The second is this: “A truly enlightened attitude to language should simply be to let six thousand or more flowers bloom.” All right, I lied. Three quotes. “In this world of homogenization—everyone speaking one standard language the same way, all the time—are we richer or better off? Not at all.”

The Prodigal Tongue, Lynne Murphy. Here’s another where the subtitle is defining (as one should be, but often is not): “The Love-Hate Relationship Between American and British English.” If you don’t know Professor Murphy, she’s a linguist born in the US and living in the UK, currently teaching at the University of Sussex. There’s so much to delight in, in this book! If you are familiar with her blog, “Separated by a Common Language,” you already know the kinds of things she gets tied up in. Here are 350+ pages of such discussions, clarifications, and outright flinging up of hands.

For this one, I give you my favorite chapter title: “America: Saving the English Language Since 1607.” I’ll also tell you I was greatly entertained by the discussions of which English invented what word/phrase. Lots of finger-pointing goes on, lemme tell you. Lynne sorts it. And yet, through it all, she doesn’t take sides. Not really. You want to know more? Read the book, honey.

Word by Word, Kory Stamper. Subtitled “The Secret Life of Dictionaries,” this is a charming in-depth look at lexicography. At the work of defining words. Like “is.” Someone has to write those definitions, y’know.

It’s nearly impossible to choose a quote or excerpt, but I forced myself. In her discussion about the letters of the alphabet and which are “better” or “worse” from a definer’s standpoint, we come to this.

S is, to put it in the modern vernacular, the worst. It is the longest letter in the book and an absolute heartbreaker, because you can see the end of the alphabet from it, and you know that once you clear S, you are moving on to T–Z, and half of those are barely even letters. But SS goes on for-fucking-ever. Exactly 11 percent of your dictionary is made of words that begin with S. One-tenth of your dictionary is made up of one twenty-sixth of the alphabet. I bet the guy in the picture who supposedly went home and shot himself was in the middle of S when he did.”

So, there you have them: four books I read (or reread) this year that I think will be of interest to you. Happy New Year, folks.

It ain’t necessarily so: the subjunctive mood

I’ve blogged about the subjunctive before, but as with nearly everything about grammar and syntax, it’s an evergreen topic. It’s December. I don’t have a tree this year. Here’s my stand-in. (Evergreen. December. Connect the dots, people.)

I bet you use this mood (it’s not a tense, it’s a mood) all the time without even thinking. “If I were you, I wouldn’t open that door.” “It’s important that we be ready to go by five.” There are the two major uses: for stating something contrary to fact (I am in fact not you, and never will be) and for a broad collection of statements about necessity, proposals, commands, suppositions, and suggestions (it’s necessary for us to be ready to go by five).

In my work, I see the first kind of usage done wrong often enough that it’s worth explaining again. 

You’ll use the subjunctive only if what you’re about to say is contrary to fact. It’s not true. It’s not the case.  And it can’t be true at all; it can’t possibly happen. If there’s a chance the thing you’re talking about is true or possible, don’t use the subjunctive mood. 

“If he were kidnapped, we’d have gotten a ransom note by now.” Using the subjunctive here means that it’s not possible he has been stuffed into a canvas bag and then into the back of a RAV4. If you suspect it’s happened, use “was” here. If it’s even possible it’s happened, use “was” here. (I’m not addressing the many other verb/tense options. This is purely an exercise in what not to do and why not to do it.)

“If he was kidnapped, the entire company would be thrown into an uproar.” We’ll say he hasn’t been, but he could be. Perhaps this is being said to the security detail, so they understand why it’s important that Quentin be protected 24/7. (And BOOM, there’s an example of another type of subjunctive statement: one of importance/necessity.)

“If she were late, all hell would break loose.” You’re saying she’s definitely not late, nor is there any chance she might be. No chance of a breakdown on the interstate or a delay on the metro. If it’s possible she is missing, don’t use “were” in that clause. Use “was.”

“If she were suffering from a gunshot wound …” She isn’t, is what this says. Maybe she’s got a stab wound. Maybe she has food poisoning. Whatever it is, it’s not a gunshot wound. “If this were a gunshot wound, it’d point to a number of suspects. But it’s not. She’s been decapitated.”

As you’re writing (or editing), ask yourself if the situation or state is possible. If it isn’t, at all, you can use the subjunctive mood. If there’s any chance the situation or state could be true, stay away from the subjunctive. 

Learn the rules, THEN break them

I’m sure you’ve seen this before. “You can’t break the rules well until you know what the rules are” and other variations to the same effect.  (That’s a fragment, and it’s intentional.) What’s the deal with that, anyway? Why bother to learn them to break them?

Because, folks, if you don’t know what the rules are to start with, you won’t be breaking them as much as you’ll be writing badly. Think about any art medium: clay, paint, metal, paper. If you don’t know what you’re doing, your work is likely to be amateurish at best, and garbage at worst. You don’t know how to use the medium effectively (some might say “correctly”), so your results are substandard.

It’s the same with writing and editing. Yes, editing. Every kind of writing and editing has its own set of rules and guidelines, and they need to be learned before they can be effectively ignored, bent, or broken.

As Roy Peter Clark says in The Glamour of Grammar: “Make sure you can identify common mistakes. You can’t break a rule and turn it into a tool unless you know it’s a rule in the first place.”

My use of a fragment back there at the start is an example of using rule-breaking as a tool. Sure, I could change that period to a colon, but I don’t want to. I want that fragment.  Don’t be fooled into thinking it’s an independent clause. It isn’t. If you don’t understand why that’s true, you have some studying to do. (Yes, I used to teach English at the middle-school level. I nearly went to Japan to teach it as a second language. I have reasons for doing what I do.)*

As a fiction editor, I work with a lot of rule-breakers. I break a few myself in some of my suggested edits. There’s a different set of them at play in fiction than in, say, academic editing or medical editing. And guess what? Register plays a huge part in it, too. The expectations of the language’s formality makes an enormous difference in what can be gotten away with.

Remember: it’s not an editor’s job to teach you English grammar. It’s their job to help you polish your writing, to help you achieve your objectives. If you’re still struggling with the basics, you’re not ready to move on. Harsh words, perhaps, but true ones–ones that will help you become the writer you want to be.

*Why is it a fragment? Because that whole thing taken as a unit is only a complex subject. There’s no verb to the thought. The verbs are in the quote, and they don’t apply to the phrase that follows “and.” Here’s another way to look at it: it’s grammatically the same as saying “this thing and that thing.” What about them? There’s no verb. And that’s the reason I wanted the fragment: as a teaching tool.

ME! ME! ME! Or: When I Am an Object

A discussion on Twitter this morning reminded me that there are, indeed, still folks out there who insist on “It is I” and similar constructions with pronouns.

English is not algebra. What’s on one side does not have to equal what’s on the other side. That is, when it comes to pronouns, what’s on one side of the verb “is” does not have to be the same case (nominative) as what’s on the other side.

In other words, “It is I” is stuffy at best. Very formal registers may well insist on it, but for other writing? Let out your corset, honey. We can say “It is me” and nothing will happen. No cataclysm will result. (We can really let loose and say “It’s me” if we’re of a mind to use a contraction.)

Technically, that “me” or “I” in “It is [me or I]” is a predicate nominative. If you’re being absolutely “correct,” and in the most formal registers as I just said, you’ll indeed want to use “I” in that position, matching the case (subjective) to the purpose (standing in for the subject). However, writing captions for photos doesn’t require high register. You’re labeling folks in a Polaroid, maybe, and you want to make sure they will know who’s who. “Roger, me, and Marian at the lake” is perfectly acceptable here. “Roger, I, and Marian at the lake” sounds like Countess Crawley wielded a dip pen over the back of the photograph.

But don’t take my word for it. Check out Woe Is I by Patricia O’Conner, or visit Mignon Fogarty’s “Quick and Dirty Tips” for this tidbit.

 

When I say “complex,” I mean …

This will be short, I hope. I think it’s time to define for my fine readers what “complex” means, grammatically speaking.

A complex sentence contains at least one subordinate clause.

Your eyes glazed over. I saw it. So here it is in plain language, following an example.

My brother, who was the valedictorian of his class, just lost his job.

That clause in italics is subordinate, meaning it can’t stand alone as is as a complete sentence because it’s directly related to another word, in this case a noun, in the sentence. It’s also called a dependent clause because it depends on the rest of the complete sentence to make sense.

When grammarians, some of whom are editors, talk about complex sentences, this is what they’re talking about. There’s another dependent (subordinate) clause. “Some of whom are editors.” There’s a subject, “some,” and a verb, “are.” You can’t just say “Some of whom are editors” and have a complete sentence, though. What does “some” relate to? “Grammarians.” Pull out that dependent clause, and you still have a complete sentence: When grammarians talk about complex sentences, this is what they’re talking about.

In fact, that sentence begins with a subordinate (dependent) clause: “When grammarians talk about complex sentences” can’t stand on its own as a complete sentence. Even taking out the subordinate clause beginning with “some” leaves us with a complex sentence. “This is what they’re talking about” is the independent clause, the complete sentence, the base on which the rest is built.

Sure, we speak in dependent clauses when we’re being informal, especially if we’re adding information to what someone’s saying. But grammatically? They’re not sentences, and they can’t stand alone.

Just because a sentence contains a lot of words doesn’t mean it’s grammatically complex. It may just have a lot of words.