Thursday, October 14, 2010

A Visit With Grammar

Recently, someone challenged the grammatical word-choice I made in a comment I posted at another blog1. This kind of puzzled me because you really don't have to go much further than one sentence — sometimes no further than one word — into a blog post or a comment of mine to kinda grok that "proper" grammar is not exactly a priority for me when it comes to my blogospheric writing2.

But I also think it doesn't take a whole lot more effort to kinda realize that that is a choice; by which I mean, I'm kinda familiar with most of the rudimentary rules, formal and otherwise, that govern "correct" writing; I'm just not particularly interested in following them when I write, and, in some cases, I'm interested in actively subverting them3.

I want to make it clear that I didn't find this "challenge" (which is perhaps not the best word for it) to be irksome or mean-spirited or dickish, because it wasn't. So consider this a tone check; because I realize that some of what I said above and will say below may come across as peevish and petty, but it's not meant to be. In fact, even though I responded to the comment "challenging" (would "questioning" sound better?) my grammar — more than once, in fact; the second time at great length, though that second comment was nothing compared to the graphomania on display in this post — nitpicking grammar and grammatical one-upmanship are of little interest to me.

Don't get me wrong: I've done that, because, let's be honest here, I'm a dick. But it's precisely because I've done it that I consider it pointless and counter-productive and, often, self-kertwanging. Because back when Mr. Vanilly was still blogging, I was a regular reader of his blog and I enjoyed his sense of humor immensely and I liked the fact that he actively encouraged people to mock him in their comments. He also has a penchant for employing comma splices in his writing, which I found to be one of the distinctive, and frankly endearing, aspects of his writing style. But in a comment on one of his posts, I mocked his use of a comma splice; except I, inept typist that I be, wrote "comma slice", so, um, who looks like the idiot now, huh? And Mr. Vanilly himself wrote saying, essentially, "Glaven, I know I'm not the most grammatical writer in the world, but I have to confess I have no idea what a 'comma slice' is" (which is understandable because there's no such thing); and then one of his other commenters pointed out, Hey idiot (meaning me), it's comma splice and when you presume to throw stones you should at least move out of your own glass house because here comes a brick.

And both of these reactions were totally justified, I thought, because in rereading my comment, it really did come across as pedantic and dickish and mean-spirited, not to mention outright wrong because what the fuck is a comma slice?

And so after all of this I basically apologized in a second comment because I got the feeling that I had, for lack of a better phrase, kinda hurt Vanilla's feelings and had done so in the most dickish way imaginable because I "criticized" an aspect of his style that I actually enjoyed and I was worried that if he ever found out what a comma splice was he'd stop using them, which would be a loss for all. (He has since stopped blogging altogether; I am still kinda worried that this may have been some delayed reaction to my comma-slice kertwang, although I kinda doubt that my kertwangs have that kinda power. He also said, in a comment on my blog, that he had not been offended by what I wrote, which kinda scanned, because, thanks to my fumble fingers, I'm the one who ended up being bitten in the @$$ most severely by that ill-considered comment.)

Second tone check: It is not my intent to suggest that the interchange I had at this other blog — the one I refer to in the opening sentence of this post — is in any way analogous to the one I just described above that happened at, with the other person cast in the role of Dickish Glaven this time. Far from it, in fact.

That exchange merely got me started in to thinking about what it is I'm actually interested in when it comes to language and how it is employed. And hence to this post, with which I am currently boring all, what, two of you who have read this far? (I include myself in that estimation, and I still think it may be a bit high.)

And I think what I'm interested in is people's linguistic idiosyncrasies. I don't always like them, and God knows I myself have more than my share of them, but I think it is almost more interesting how people say what they say than what they say. (Sometimes though? Neither is particularly interesting.)

For example, one of my favorite bloggers is an Ultra-marathoner and a bit of a Science Geek. Now, anybody who reads this blog knows I have zero interest in running a marathon, much less an ultra; and I am simply not smart enough to understand the science-y stuff he writes.

But here's the thing: When he writes that science-y stuff, he does so in a non-condescending way, the assumption behind which, evidently, is You Are Capable of Understanding This Without My Having To Insult Your Intelligence By Writing It In The Fucktarded Style of A Sesame Street Segment. In my particular case, he is wrong in this assumption, but I appreciate the faith in me as a reader that it presupposes. It makes me want to try to understand4.

And I realize that what I write here can get kinda hobby-horsical and sometimes presupposes a certain level of familiarity with topics that not everyone is familiar with or even interested in.

But I intend that as an expression of faith in the ability of the two of you who have managed to read this far.

This morning's run: 5.94 miles in 56 minutes; 9:24 pace. Yesterday's run 6.45 miles in 1 hour and 1 minute; 9:30 pace.

1 Despite how it may look, I actually do put some (though not much) thought into not just the word choices I make, but also the syntax, diction, etc., of my sentences. Of course a lot of that is done with such a low level of cogitation that it barely qualifies as conscious thought. Other times, it is more deliberate; e.g., vis-à-vis the first sentence of this post, above: I originally wrote it thus: I recently had the grammar of a word choice I made in a comment at another blog challenged ... at which point I stopped and looked at the structure of that sentence and decided it had to be recast, not merely because it was in the passive voice (and there's nothing inherently wrong with that), but because there were a full twelve words between the word "grammar" and the adjective describing what had happened to that noun, i.e., that it had been challenged. That's pretty attenuated for an opening sentence; that sentence structure would have passed muster in my mind if it had occurred in a less "important" (however you wish to define "important" here, and I say that in full recognition of the fact that there are some who read this blog who would define it in this instance as "not important at all" and I assume those people have stopped reading this post by now) sentence; like, for instance, this one, where I had no problem jamming a 49-word parenthetical statement between the adjective "'important'" and the noun it modifies — "sentence".

There were other, lesser issues that I considered, as well, when rejecting the original formulation of that opening sentence, but I won't bore you by enumerating them ... or perhaps I should say, "I won't bore you further ..." since, if you are not fully bored by now, Dear Reader, it may be time to visit your family doctor and have your boredom-tolerance gland tweaked with sweet, sweet drugs.

Incidentally, there are problems with the sentence I ultimately went with up there; there always are1a; there always will be, no matter what grammatical choices you make. If you effectively make your point but your grammar is "incorrect", someone may well nitpick your grammar; if your sentence is grammatically impeccable (assuming for the nonce that such a thing is possible) but impenetrably obtuse and difficult to parse, someone will, rightly, criticize you for that.

I myself have more sympathy for the latter criticism since I think if you are managing to get your point across reasonably well then, in most cases, who gives a flying farg about your grammar? The point of language, in this view, being to communicate effectively.

The greatest sin of all is to be boring. But that — what's boring, what's not — is so hopelessly subjective that it seems hardly worth bringing up (he said after bringing it up). But I bring it up because I think there is a distinction between being "boring" or "ineffective" and being "challenging"; some things are worth the effort and are even more rewarding because they're hard1b. But then again, what is and isn't is entirely subjective.

1a Or should that be "There always is"? (This is an inside joke that you couldn't possibly get unless you read the original exchange to which I am referring in this post.)

A second barrier to your "getting" this joke? It's not funny. Not even if you read that original exchange.

1b THAT'S WHAT SHE SAID!1! (I made this interjection its own footnote-within-a-footnote, forcing you to come waaaaay down here to read it, to give you an example of something that is definitely NOT worth the effort. Sorry. But now you really get my point on the whole worth-it/not-worth-it dichotomy.)

2 It is in fact not that much of a priority to me in just about all of the writing I do these daze, but how the fuck would all of you avatars know that?

I mean, how aside from reading this footnote and finding out. So from now on, don't go saying you didn't know.

3 Case in point: the footnotes, which I gather most people hate and which may well be one of the principal reasons I am down to a core readership of roughly seven people, presumably the seven most masochistic people in a Running Blogosphere full of bizarrely self-punishing and masochistic individuals. (You people have issues, but as a blogger, I'm glad that you do. And no worries: Today, as with all days, You Shall Have Your Linguistic Discipline. In fact, you're soaking in it.) It may seem weird and self-important to put it this way, but it seems most things that people assert as truth needs need [obsessively "fixed" later lest someone come along and nitpick my noun-verb agreement] to be undercut to more or less of an extent, because they tend to be not wrong, but problematic, over-simplified, incomplete, etc., etc. This is nowhere more true than in those cases where I am the one doing the "Truth"-asserting. I am, to put it bluntly, full of shit and an expert on exactly nothing, in need of being challenged and undercut at every opportunity. Even I know this. I am not a Voice of Authority, even though that dickhead version of me up there in the main text tends to think I am, evidently. He needs to be undercut; he needs to have his "authority" challenged; he needs to know that an alternate and somewhat coherent counter-narrative, in opposition to the snake-oil narrative he's trying to sell you, exists and can be articulated and calls into question pert-near everything he claims to be the case. In fact, the counter-narrative can at times become so large and involuted and precious and self-involved that it essentially becomes the main narrative and that's when I know it's time to let that guy up there in the main text take a few potshots at this dickhead down here who's obviously getting too big for his breeches.

But the footnotes are intended to serve as my acknowledgment that explanations other than the ones I offer are available.

Also? I use footnotes for extraneous fart jokes that I couldn't find a way to cram into the main text3a.

3a See that? How I subverted myself there?

4 Yeah, and how's that going for you, Glaven?


  1. Well, I am the Queen of the Comma Splice (possibly even guilty of a comma slice, because if you can fuck up comma usage in ANY way I will do it) that fact coupled with my limited vocabulary and lack of interest in most non-science subjects, is certainly due to the fact that my selfish-ass parents sent me to public school, where I was taught by inept fucktards whose only goal was to subvert any actual learning on my part, which turned me in to the mindless, run-on sentence writing drone you see today.

    If they really loved me they would have homeschooled me and kept me away from the type of wretched, apathetic, and clearly stupid people that would gravitate to a cushy job like education. I mean, 'those that can do and those that can't teach', right?

    See? A few of us got our feathers ruffled at Chateau Steve yesterday.

    I used to be really self conscious about my writing and anyone reading it. Then I turned 35 and stopped giving a fuck what anyone thought, and started blogging. Then you and SQ showed up and I got self conscious again, but, honestly, nowadays, I would rather get to hang with the big fish than feel superior in a puddle. In other words, I am cool with being the dumb one and I like having smart, talented friends.

  2. gavin, this is one of your best posts to date. and i'm saying that with posts about your bro, your dad, the who and shxpr in mind. let's face it, i really dig on the way you set up, deliver and confuse your readers with the long, run on sentences that seem to wind up the mountain only to end up in a fiery crash off a cliff of [i'm thinking long and hard [that's what she said] about the proper word here] properness [i know i made that up, but i think it fits well, in the sense that we all have an idea what is proper, both in grammar and what is socially acceptable, and you push the envelope with both]. what you do succeed in doing, though, is taking the reader on a trip, one that forces the reader to pay attention, to think critically and to suspend belief [if only to help support the ridiculous persona that you create on your blog, because, let's face it, no one could REALLY be that much of a jackhole as you come off to be, right?]. so, that was my initial thought upon reading this post, that i dug it, that i enjoyed the ride, the humour [ack! kanadians!] and the grammar, but then i went and read teh b1tch's comment and was all, "yup, that's how i feel sometimes" [not the self conscious part, or the part about having feathers ruffled, or really any of it except the part about having smart, talented friends].

  3. Wow. After these first two comments, I am for some reason fighting the feeling that I should turn comments off before someone comes along with a buzzkill comment and ruins my groovy day.

    Speaking of which, where are you, SteveQ?

    Thanks, jiif and RBR!

  4. I keep coming back because you're the only blogger I know whose vocabulary rivals my own.

    Plus I think you're fucking hilarious.

    Sarah (D-MI)

  5. I come back, because where else in the blogosphere do I get the mental stimulation of keeping track of some variable number of footnotes, and lately, footnotes within footnotes, so that I can proceed from the textual material into the footnotal material without a pause, except maybe for a sip of coffee, then read all the footnotes, connecting each up with the referenced material, without having to scroll back up and read anything over again.

    I get there most days, but today I didn't. No, it's not that this post was any more complicated, or any more boring than any other post, the Phillies posts excepted of course, but I had the additional challenges of eating a huge cinnamon bun from the best bakery in town for such things, and drinking coffee, and trying to chat online with a buddy.

    As for grammar Nazi's, I kind of despise them. I figure if you're criticizing someone's grammar, it's because you aren't smart enough to find holes in the actual concepts laid out in the text. Some of the grammar rules don't even refer to English, for crying out loud, they are hold overs from when the educated people spoke and wrote Latin. They haven't yet noticed that English works differently.

    That's one of the things I love about English. It's so slippery. I mean, has so many cases of multi-valued logic that prescribes why a certain way of arranging words is usually better than another in a particular set of circumstances, and might be entirely different another time. i've had fun chatting with foreign co-worker about why a certain word choice is Canadian, as opposed to American or British.

    I suspect Steve is still bogged down in that whole grammar post thing, and dithering about changing the name of his blog. Important decision, that.

  6. And you never did come back "later" with more info about the Revolution clip. I was on tenter-hooks ALL FREAKING DAY LONG WAITING!!! Darn you anyways. And yes, I don't have a life right now. I'm not allowed to be out training several hours a day with the requisite prep and followup.

  7. HFC! (The only blasphemous, profane AND scatological acronym of which I'm aware) There's way too much here for complete commentary.

    My own writing tends to be oddly stilted, especially if you ever hear me speak in more typical non-stilted verbiage. One of the reasons I write my blog the way I do is that I'm trying to convey information to an audience with an extreme variety of background. If I write about nutrition, Ross the professor of biochemistry (and loser of 80 pounds) will comment. If I write about injuries (and boy, do I write about injuries), there's six MD's - including an orthopedist - three nurses, a friggin' chiropractor (yeah... him) and a couple of physical therapists and trainers who chime in, as does anyone who's ever suffered a similar complaint. If I write about training, anyone who's ever run has an opinion. Then the (ahem)grammarians and high school teachers (cough, RBR) quibble about details of the writing its ownself or point out some silly foible.

    And I love it ("it" being sentence particles). Most readers can pull out some general idea from my writing and specialists can dig out a nugget or two. That's a challenge for me that I enjoy.

    Now, as for why I read this particular crapshoot of a blog - I like its writer. The fact that he's aware of David Foster Wallace's opinions on the presciptivist/descriptivist schism is just a bonus.

    Now, off I go to write something terribly embarassing that will include my own stylistic invention of separating the quotes of others from my own by switching between quotation marks for the former and an embedded dash for myself.

  8. Glaven. I love it when you get in a huff. I'll have to give you hard time more often. Thanks for teaching me the word kertwanging. Actually, I don't know what it means yet, but I'll go look it up.

    OMG. The sound of a ball hitting a tennis racket. Bobby felt his third nipple was an existential kertwang. God enjoyed kertwanging Bobby by sending gusts of wind to blow up his shirt to reveal his third nipple.

  9. @SLG: "A" hard time. Stop the Charlie Chan impersonation and use articles.

  10. I don't know if I count as one of your 7 core since I comment only occasionally (and primarily when you write about grammar or when you write about writing, in those cases, I am all over it*), but I think I may use part of your post in one of my composition classes because it illustrates two of the most important things I try to teach struggling writers...and that is first, good writers make choices, mostly based on being clear to their readers (your explanation of what you considered in writing your first sentence is PERFECT)' and two, that you can "break" a whole lot of grammar rules when your primary purpose is to be understood. Nice

    * that's what she said

  11. Glaven, you'll be pleased to know that I still have no idea what a comma splice or a comma slice is. If I did know what one looked like I'd put one in this comment just to make your day and maybe I did but it's not intentional because I'm not that clever. Anyway, still no hard feelings about that whole thing.

  12. Excuse me, but who doesn't know what a comma slice is? Duh! Here, I'll use it in a sentence:

    I prefer my vodka tonic with a comma slice.

    No? Not correct? Then I have no F#$%ing clue what a comma slice is. And my mother's an english teacher for cripes sake.

    Your writing is weird. And I loves it :)