Not Just Another Grouchy Grammarian

Musings about language, books, grammar, and writing in general

Archive for the category “evolving language”

Yes, Words Matter, a Guest Post by David Gerrold.

Note from Deb: David Gerrold posted this on Facebook early this morning, and I felt it was important, so I asked him if I could reproduce it as a guest post, giving him full credit, of course. He was kind enough to say yes, so here it is.  For those of you not familiar with David Gerrold, he is the author of over 50 books, several hundred articles and columns, and over a dozen television episodes, including Star Trek’s “The Trouble with Tribbles.”

And now, I turn the floor over to Mr. Gerrold:


Yes, words matter.

The trick is to not let them matter very much.

Ask an African-American what he or she has been called. There’s a whole song in the musical HAIR which lists some of those. Ask a Jew what he or she has been called. You can go back to Shakespeare’s MERCHANT OF VENICE to understand the tradition of Jew-baiting. And women — there’s no shortage of derogatory words for women, many of them based on female genitals. And gay men and women? Hooboy! Someone was working overtime on that linguistic smörgåsbord.

But guess what? Along about the fiftieth time someone calls you a faggot (or any of the other joyous epithets), the words begin to lose all power to hurt. After a while, it’s just amusing. After a while, it’s just an invitation to snap out a great punch line. A woman shouted at me, “Are you a faggot?” I looked at her and said, “Are YOU the alternative?”

Yes, words matter — but that doesn’t mean we have to be victimized them. We can own them.

Somebody on an online forum once thought to shame me. He called me a “homo.” Oh, heavens. My response? “You think I should be ashamed of my capacity to love? Every time someone calls me that, they’re reminding me of how much love I’ve experienced in my life. You really think I’m going to wither away?”

I’m a writer. There’s a lesson that the great writers have mastered: own the language. Ride it like a bronco. Hang on for the ride. Steer it where you need it to go. OWN THE LANGUAGE.

Yes, words matter — but I refuse to be a victim of language, I intend to be one of the owners.

Semicolons are Sexy

A friend on LiveJournal pointed me to this wonderful little blog post by Oliver Miller.  Since I’ve always been rather fond of semicolons, I figured that I should pass this one on to you guys.  After all, we grammarians are among the last people standing who don’t want to retire the semicolon.

I do really lament the fact that people no longer seem to understand how to use semicolons. Then again, I lament that people no longer understand how to use commas, and ellipses.  That’s just h0w I am.  I actually like the grammar I grew up with.

When I grew up, we had to diagram sentences. For those of you who are young, that means taking a sentence and sorting it into parts. It was like sorting the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle into the proper order, and I considered it fun and a challenge.

Diagramming a Sentence Courtesy of Wikihow.

Diagramming a Sentence
Courtesy of Wikihow.

These days, they don’t teach that anymore, and I am not thrilled about it.  Yes, it could be tedious; yes, it took time to master.  However, it also left me with a much better understanding of the language. It helped me understand the complex sentences that the writers we studied used.  It gave me an entry point for my love of language and the written word.  I don’t know what it is that has replaced it in today’s educational faddism, but I mourn its passing.  It made language much richer for me, because it taught me something about the part each word in a sentence played.

Sigh. I know it’s old-fashioned, and that you all are more used to me looking t the way language evolves and noting that it does happen. I know that language evolves.  I just wish we, as a society, still cared as much about how our language works as we do about who a celebrity was dating.

Okay, a semicolon might not be as sexy as (insert your favorite celebrity here), but they still make complex sentences more comprehensible.

Your grammarian has recently edited two manuscripts. One was a horrible piece, wooden characters, “said bookisms,” all sorts of mistakes. The other was a wonderful story with good strong characters, an excellent plot, and an intriguing opening.

Unfortunately, thee two manuscripts had one thing in common. Neither of the authors seems to know how to format a manuscript.

Now, formatting a manuscript is not rocket science. I know that some of you are going to say that I shouldn’t be too hard on these writers, because I can’t expect new writers to know such things the way professional writers do. I don’t expect them to “know” it. I do expect that if they are serious about writing, they will pick up a book and learn it.

When I started writing for publication, I had no idea how to subit a manuscript, so I went to the library and photocopied the section from Writer’s Market on the standards for a manuscript. And I wore that photocopy out referring to it until I did learn.

It seems to me that one of the biggest problems today, especially when it comes to writing, is that people have forgotten that standards were developed to ease communications between people. They are not just a dead bunch of rules to learn by rote, no matter how silly some of the rules seem to those who are not writers.

Now I’m not saying rules don’t change. As I think I’ve noted, sometimes there are good reasons for changing rules, like the differences that technology made so that two spaces are no longer necessary after a period. Sometimes, the rules are merely stylistic, and will vary from publisher to publisher, like a preference for (or against) the Oxford comma.

Anyway, at some point when I am not in deadline Hell, I will probably do a column on how to format a manuscript.  Until then, keep writing and if you need to learn how to format a manuscript, please either obtain a copy of the current Writers Market, or borrow one from the library, or check the various resources available online.


What are some of your favorite writing, reading, and language books?

Most of us who play with words, whether for a living or for fun, love books about words, about writing, and about language. From the grammar books we grew up with, to the histories of language tha pique our interests, we are, indeed, “people of the book,” although the “book” in question may vary.

When it comes to writing, my go-to book is The Chicago Manual of Style, followed closely by Lawrence Block’s books on writing, by the Writers’ Digest series of writing books, and by almost any book that explores how English developed.  I also love books about journal-keeping (whether online or on paper).

Since I have read most of the books *I* have found on the subject, I am asking my readers to let me know what some of their favorites are, so that I can hit the library (my favorite resource of all) and expand my knowledge base. I know that a lot of the books we lean on for our grammar depend on what was being taught as we were growing up, and I also know that grammar has changed since I was a young’un.  Therefore, I am primarily interested in seeing what books are being taken as grammar gospel by those whose schooling was after mine (I graduated high school in 1970).

What books are your touchstones when it comes to grammar, language, writing and reading? What books would you recommend to someone trying to learn more about English and how it developed? What is your favorite reference resource?

Sigh – I HATE Political Correctness

Your grammarian is particularly grouchy this morning.

I was reading the current issue of Time (which had finally dried out enough that it could be picked up without falling apart)  when a small “sidebar” type article caught my attention. Written by Katy Steinmetz, the article is about how states are trying to replace gendered language with gender-neutral terms.

It’s an interesting article, and the comments are kind of amusing, but…. We have not been able to come up with a genderless third person pronoun (I tend to prefer”Heesh”; others use “zir”). To me, that would be much more effective than the traditional, but somewhat cumbersome, “he or she.”  However, the legislatures trying to deal with this issue seem to think that using “he or she” (alternated with “she or he”) is a relatively easy fix. What they are having problems with are words, like “manhole,” “penmanship,” and “ombudsman.” They have come up with fixes for “penmanship” (“handwriting”) and for “ombudsman” (“ombuds.”), but are somewhat stymied over what to do with words like “airman” and “manhole”.

To me, this is almost as stupid as the insistence back in the 1970s that women needed a separate language. Is our language sexist? Yeah, it is. Then again, our society is still sexist to a large degree. Will changing the language to a more gender-neutral one change that? I don’t think it will do a lot – at least not in our lifetimes. Yes, the language you use informs the way you think. But I think that if a society really becomes less gender-biased, the terms that are needed will develop naturally, rather than being legislated into effect. After all, changes in language did little to improve bigotry – it just meant that people gave lip service to equality, while thinking whatever they thought before.

Then again, I think that much political correctness, like much diversity training, is bullshit engendered by those with good intentions. When I worked for $MajorFinancialServiceFirm, they were really big on diversity training, but the upshot of most of it was that there are certain things you can be sued for publicly admitting to, and it would be nice if you didn’t do or say those things, so we don’t get sued for millions of dollars. The haters still hated, regardless of how many seminars or workshops they attended, and those who didn’t hate were forced to spend hours of time that could be better spent doing their jobs in seminars that they were already well beyond in terms of actions and feelings.

And, I don’t notice them making a fuss over words like “charwoman,” “nanny,” or “cleaning woman.” I guess it’s only male-gender-specific words that matter enough to these people, which kind of begs the question about how pure their motives are, nu?

How do you feel about political correctness, especially as applied to language? If political correctness in language should, in your opinion, be addressed, what issue would you want to see addressed first? Do you think that using gender-neutral language will have any real effect on how the average person thinks?

Usage Peeve Bingo

Stan Carey, in his blog Sentence First, has a wonderful post about “Usage Peeve Bingo,” including a wonderful bingo card.  Mind, as an American, I would change the square marked “Americanisms” to “Oxford Comma,” but otherwise I think it’s a wonderful idea!

One thing that would definitely be on a “Usage Peeve Bingo” card I would create would be my personal favorite: “As per.” I cannot tell you how many times I have  run into that in business correspondence, and it makes my skin crawl every time. I know it’s common usage, but it’s a redundancy. (It really is.  Look it up.) The proper usage (in business communications, anyway, should be “Per your request…” and not “As per your request….” However, this is one of those errors that people continue to make. In fact, many business people insist that it is the correct usage, and that “Per your request…” is wrong.

As I have said before, I know that language evolves, and that usage changes. But, like many of us, I tend to remain loyal to what the usage was back when I learned to read and write. Then, again, even the way language is taught has changed. I remember parsing and diagramming sentences, which is – increasingly – a lost art. Come to think of it, I also remember that it used to be common practice to double a final consonant (see “diagramming” in the previous sentence) when adding a suffix such as “…ing” or “…ed” to a word, which also seems to have largely fallen by the wayside.

So, what would you change on a “Usage Peeve Bingo” card? What would you include? Exclude? Accept as the evolution of formal, written language? Reject?

Another Argument – This Time Over Punctuation

Ah. There is a vicious argument going on over at Linked In. It concerns whether to use one or two spaces after a period. The originator of the discussion, one Shereese , quotes Farhad Manjoo from Slate magazine, who says:

“Can I let you in on a secret? Typing two spaces after a period is totally, completely, utterly, and inarguably wrong.

And yet people who use two spaces are everywhere, their ugly error crossing every social boundary of class, education, and taste.”

Mr. Manjoo’s entire column on this subject can be found here. I strongly suggest reading it, as it is well-thought-into. Unlike the young woman quoting him, Mr. Manjoo looks at both sides of the argument. He notes the arbitrariness of both schools of thought, and discusses the history of spacing, as well as why typographers prefer single spacing after periods.

Like many of us, I learned in school that when typing, one places two spaces after a period. Of course, I learned to type long before word processors and computers were common in offices. I first learned on a portable manual typewriter, then (in college) upgraded to an IBM Selectric typewriter. In fact, it wasn’t until the late 1970’s that the office I was in replaced typewriters — first with word processors, then a year or so later, with computers. And when we got the computers, no one ever said anything about changing how we typed.

A year or so ago, I began hearing that it was no longer considered proper to use two spaces after a period. (And, I note, that I still have not heard about using only one space after a colon.) I have checked with a few friends who are professional proofreaders, and they have told me the following: “It is no longer necessary to leave two spaces after a period because computers are designed to do the kerning that typewriters were not.” However, I have not, until recently, heard people assert that those who use the double space are just plain wrong and ignorant.

Again, the arrogance of the young raises its head — assuming that anyone who does not do things their way is wrong, and deserves derision. The truth is that if you learned to type using the double space, it is probably ingrained in your habits. And, just like any other habit, it takes time to break it and retrain yourself to do something different. Mind, the arrogance of the old is no bargain either. It amounts to, “This is how I learned; therefore, it is written in stone that I am right.” The style manuals are not much help either. Some say that both methods are correct; some favor one or the other.

If you are a professional content provider, I would suggest checking with your clients to see which method they want you to use. You would check the client’s style manual or writers’ guidelines before submitting work, anyway.

As I have said before, language evolves — even formal, written language. And, while I do not like some of the changes, I neither make the rules nor write the style guides. I am trying to ingrain this new convention, since the reason makes sense to me, but after 45 years of using a double space after a period, it may take some time.

Him or Her?

One of my commenters to another post remarked that her pet peeve was people who use “they” instead of “him” or “her” in writing.

I agree that it would be lovely if English had a gender-neutral, singular pronoun.  It doesn’t, however; so people try to figure out ways to work around the issue.

Sometimes, especially if one knows the gender of the person referred to, one can use the gender-appropriate word.  However, there are times when using “his or her” is the only way to construct the sentence, and there are times when that is just too darned clunky.

When possible, I use that construction, but I am increasingly drawn — at least in casual writing, like a chat room, or in the fannish communities I hang out in — to using “heesh.”  I first encountered this term in the apa (amateur press association) communities that were the way people in sf fandom communicated before computers.  It’s a simple, fairly elegant work-around, and it’s a term understood by everyone in the community.

In formal communication, however, I still opt for the clunkier but correct construction.  It’s like everything else in life:  There are places where changes are appropriate, and places where they are not.  The art of living with a constantly evolving language is knowing which places are which.

If you are amenable to language changing, what fora do you consider appropriate for enacting those changes?  What fora would you *never* bring changes to?  What changes would you consider good and useful?  What changes do you despise?

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