Tuesday, January 31, 2006

The Grammatical Right

What is the correct way to punctuate a book title? If you said it should be underlined or italicized, how do you explain the fact that the New York Times uses quotation marks for book titles? I mean, if they aren't right, who is?
This was a test question. If you responded, "Who cares?" you may have grown up during the Fifties and gone to college in the Sixties, at which time you learned that your parents and teachers were all wrong, and you pretty much agreed, having suspected as much all along. You bought into a new ethic: that punctuation and grammar are all based on usage. Whatever people actually say and write is normative for the language. We should not be bound by what's in a grammar book or a dictionary.

A word like "infer" once meant to draw a certain meaning from. Its companion word was "imply," which means to convey a certain meaning, albeit indirectly. Now, if lots of people start saying "infer" when they mean "imply," and vice versa, the Fifties child above would say, then these words have evolved to mean the same thing. Most of us Fifties kids never really reached this degree of open-mindedness, and each of us has certain pet peeves about aspects of the language that are being butchered by contemporary speakers. But in general, we understand the principle that language is a fluid medium, always changing to meet new needs.

Now if you answered that punctuation question, "I don't know. I'd better look it up," you may have grown up in the forties. You would then be irritated to find that the Times violates the rules set forth in the Harbrace Handbook (and you'd know what the Harbrace Handbook is, and might even have the 1941 edition.)

But if you answered that question, "Of course it's got to be italicized, and I don't need any whatchamacallem handbook to tell me that!" you may have gone to school during the Sixties and Seventies. You know in your gut that the Times is wrong because it just looks bad. You can correct people's misuse of commas, and you know what infer means, and you are pretty sure about how to use capitals. What's more, you feel pretty strongly about these things.

This is just a wild theory of mine, but I think it might have some truth to it. I grew up among that first group, diagramming sentences, doing exercise after exercise on punctuation, learning the difference between can and may. When I started college in 1960, my English prof returned papers to me that resembled a drunk's nose--criss-crossed as they were by red hatchings, all references to the Harbrace Handbook. All of those first papers received "F" and "D" grades. Little by little, our ability to write correct Harbracian English improved, until, at the end of the semester, we were getting As and Bs on those papers, and sounding more articulate.

By the time I finished college and began learning how to teach English and French, the whole philosophy of teaching had changed. In linguistics I learned about the natural evolution of languages. Teaching English as a Second Language, I came to see how punctuation has to follow good usage, and not the other way around. Until you can form good sentences, it is futile to learn punctuation and rules of grammar. I began to see changes in rules I had learned earlier--fewer commas, different use of apostrophes, relaxed usage of certain vocabulary words. Did one fight this, or accept it as the natural process of linguistic development?

There are also different kinds of usage, depending on the situation in which one finds onesself. The language of a term paper is not that of the daily newspaper. A document to be read at a serious public occasion is not the same as one destined for a poetry reading in a coffee house. The informal speech I used for my fiction characters' dialogue was not the same as language I might use in a non-fiction newspaper article. Much of language is situational, and, like ethics, tends to take on a certain relativity at times. Our philosophy was, "Cut the crap!" What counted was meaning, and if you could get punctuation with that, sweet, but if not, too bad.

So much for the Fifties child. But what of that other person--the one who grows up in the Sixties? In the Sixties, children were more likely to learn in elementary school classrooms where you spent your time in learning centers and sat in circles. Teachers taught for creativity and hesitated to correct children, lest their spontaneity be crushed and frustrated. By the time these people began college, the Harbrace Handbook was history. You formed small groups and talked about how a given reading made you feel, and then wrote something expressive about it. Am I being snide? Not really. I had to stalk my daughter's elementary school to ensure that she had a properly structured classroom, since she tended to drift away in learning centers (as I would have). During the Seventies I attended my share of classes where we spent most of our time discussing questions in small groups.

We were all at fault in creating that world. Most of us had bought into this way of learning, in theory at least. We had lost our faith in authoritarian learning models, even if this new model seemed counter-intuitive at times.

Many of those educated during this period have no intellectual framework to match mine--that network of rules and regulations that supported our use of language. This is not to say they do not use the language as well as or better than my contemporaries do. If the theory was correct, anyone bathed in the English language day after day should be able to use it. It comes to us as a birthright, we learn it as we grow. It doesn't require rules to be used well.

However, rules are handy things for defining what we do after the fact. They give a certain reassurance, express our communal ownership of the way we speak. I suspect that one who has not grown up with the rules may sense a certain something lacking.

What I'm seeing is a new authoratarianism emerging. Perhaps it's similar to the Religious Right, a similar phenomenon. This is the grammatical right. What it may tell us is that we all need rules if we are to be a communal people. Throwing aside the rules and authorities is an individualistic attitude, the zenith of romanticism. As we come to see our need to be part of a whole, we also need to establish commonly accepted practices, understanding as to how we do things as a people.

If you infer from this that I'm suggesting we all need grammar rules, I guess I'd agree that that was my implication.


At 10:24 AM, Blogger "The Fanatic" said...

This is an interesting commentary on generation gaps, too.

At 12:18 PM, Blogger Chris Kemp said...

Somebody order me a cheeseburger!

At 4:58 PM, Blogger Chris Kemp said...

Seriously, that was thought provoking.


Post a Comment

<< Home