15 November 2007

Pet peeve: pet peeves

Bloggers tend to be sticklers about grammar. I should amend that and say, good bloggers tend to be sticklers about grammar, which amounts to saying that good writers tend to be sticklers about grammar. It makes sense, you know? Someone who can write well is usually familiar with the nuts and bolts of language, the little bits of grammar and punctuation that make for a good sentence.

So it makes sense that a lot of people end up writing about grammar, and specifically their grammar pet peeves. One example I read recently is MetroDad's Confessions of a Grammar Nerd. (I dare everybody to read all of the comments...)

I always have a mixed reaction to these kinds of posts. On one hand, the former proofreader in me wants wants to cheer, because I too want to correct every last twist and turn of the language fast lane. But other the other hand... Well, let's just say that the road metaphor is especially apt because language is one. I.e., it is always in motion and changing, and cannot be entirely defined by any ruler-nosed grammar panel or elementary-school textbook. (Despite what the Académie française might like to think.)

I'm especially formed in this line of thinking by a linguistics class I took in college, during which we read Stephen Pinker's The Language Instinct. My memories of the book specifically are fuzzy, but I do remember being inspired by it to view language as not something created by a list of external rules, but as an internal wiring of the brain. So, if language changes, it is often because the change fulfills a (social) need. Now, of course I know the difference between a completely laissez-faire attitude and an awareness of varying social language registers, which is why I tell my students that it is not OK to use instant-messagese in an academic paper and why I correct their grammar anyway.

But all of this is a long way of describing why one of my pet peeves is grammar pet peeves. One of the most maddening is the insistence on maintaining the split infinitive rule. The only reason grammarians decided we should not split the infinitive (i.e., it is important to always keep "to" and "keep" together) is because in Latin, these are contained in one word. By that standard, English wouldn't have any moveable parts at all. This is not Latin, it's English, and we should be allowed to boldly go where no one has gone before.

Another example of this is nixing any and all dangling participles. Yes, in some cases they are awkard, unsightly, or unecessary. Sometimes they are jarring rhythmically. But in others, it is more awkward and/or unecessarily formal to rework the sentence so that there is no dangling, resulting in a lot of "to which blahblahblah." I would be perfectly happy to lose this "rule" and just stick with what sounds nicest. What do we have against prepositions?

Of course, there's a difference between disliking the rules and fragrantly disobeying them. I know that these are important to most other people, so I would--especially in any important, work-related document--not split my infinitives or leave participles a-hanging. And if you give me an in-house style book and tell me to hunt out whatever deviates from it, I'm your eagle-eyed woman. (Especially the Genetics house style: that was my baby when I was a proofreader. And yeah, proofreading genetic code will make your head spin in proportion to how important it is that any given C, G, A, or T be correct.)

I do have to admit that there are plenty of niggling (or howling) grammar mistakes that get my goat. Most of them do serve an important function because they distinguish between variants of a word (it's/its, their/there/they're) or change the meaning of a sentence (punctuation is often to blame for this, especially commas and the hilariously improper use of scare quotes--check out this blog, it's fabulous!). I also get a bit annoyed by improper alphabetization (titles beginning with "The" found under T), untidy title capitalization (capitalized prepositions) and incorrect usage of foreign language words or terms (this last can, admittedly, get kind of fuzzy and I've run across some huge challenges in translation over this issue).

Most often, though, I find grammar "mistakes" amusing or revealing because they get me thinking NOT about how they are breaking some invisible rule, but because they make me consider the structures of language and shades of meaning that can arise from word placement, spelling, punctuation, and all that jazz.

Here's an example I saw the other day, in an e-mail from a long-lost family member we met at the family reunion in September. She writes, "I have a whole family I had never met that I now feel so blessed to be apart of..."

First reaction: beep beep! glaring error! Second reaction: language is so cool! Maybe you've noticed this before, or maybe you just think I'm out of my mind. But this only occurred to me for the first time upon seeing the above e-mail: a part and apart are only differentiated by one small space. But they mean the opposite of one another, and the one with a space in it means to belong to something, while the one that is all together means to not be together!

(Yes, I am a language nerd. Forgive me if grammar was the last thing you wanted to read about today. Hopefully you stopped reading long long ago if that's the case.)

Now, a slight tangent. I bought cough drops today that advertised in bold letters on the front that they are sugar free. Yet, the ingredient list contains "sirop de sucre caramelisé" or, as they translated it in English, "burnt sugar syrup." How is this not sugar? Chemistry? Or semantics?

Today I am thankful for: feeling better, or at least that the cough drops/cough syrup combo is working. Also, the smell of pumpkin-apple bread fresh from the oven. I'm baking it for our autumn/Halloween party in Barcelona this weekend. We promised something "American" to our guests, and this is the only thing I could come up with that was plane-portable and contained Halloweeny/American ingredients: i.e., pumpkin. It's the last of the cans that we brought back from the US, so if anyone wants to send me some more, feel free.

1 comment:

Dan said...

The apart vs a part connundrum is my #1 edit here at work. But what I find more interesting than any specific grammar issues that we may have (we have many) is that these accidental moments turn out to be some of the most interesting writing we do— probably the closest thing we have to poetry.