Let's Talk About Grammar

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Let's Talk About Grammar
– posted to the PDC blog June 9, 2013

This was written in response to a second article by Matt Haig, author of the article "30 things to tell a book snob," titled "30 things to tell a grammar snob." While I did respond directly to that latter post (the response located here), I did not the former. Nor is it at all a direct response to Haig's 30 points – for the most part, I found them not worth the bother. Rather, I took the grammar post as a spur to explore attitudes toward grammar and language sophistication.

This, like the previous, was originally posted to the Poetry Daily Critique blog (here).
– June 9, 2013

          I am afraid we cannot get rid of God because
          we still believe in grammar.

                – Nietzsche. Twilight of the Idols


Your opening question: How many tenses are there in English?

Well, it seems that Matt Haig, the resident blogger at booktrust, has followed up his "30 Things to Tell a Book Snob" with "30 Things to Tell a Grammar Snob." And, really, I've no desire to directly respond point by point again – except perhaps to quietly say that, perhaps, he should stop these little efforts, stop talking about things that are outside his wheelhouse. (If it makes your stomach ache, don't do it. Rather obvious, that.) In truth, I would call his second "30" list more mis-informed and mal-conceived than his first, which is unfortunate, as he is – either intentionally or by accident – white washing over what is a very important subject, and a subject that, in truth, has much more to offer in its exploration than another list. (Not to mention just getting a lot of things wrong.)

So, I want to give a moment to the issue of grammar and "grammar snobs." (Mostly, grammar.) And, yes, unlike the quasi-mythical book snob that Haig took to fight in his previous Booktrust post (yes, there are book snobs; but not like he described them that I've heard heard of), grammar snobs very much do exist, in a number of forms. People who say they have never encountered one either (1) are not so very much part of the world of the written word, or (2) are not paying attention. (Or, perhaps, (3) are very lucky.)

But, the fallacy in Haig's approach and assumptions is to assume (or at least demonstrate) that "grammar snob = bad," and therefore whatever lies at the other end of the spectrum = good.[FN] Which is far from the truth. Most very especially if you are a writer.

[FN] And, if you were paying attention, you would have seen that that pretty much was the rhetorical/argumentative stance he took on his first list of 30.

In a way, you can speak about grammar as a kind of spectrum, with one end being the grammar fetishists, the other end being the wholly unattentive: though it would be one like the specturm of light, where the colors actually change along the way, as opposed to something like a volume nob, where the spectrum is merely more or less. So let me try this out, and see if you want to bite.

Here's a first go:


---- grammatical illiteracy
Does not necessarily mean complete illiteracy: you can read some without understanding grammar at all. You're not reading Kant, mind you. (Admittedly, that is something of an imagined person, or, perhaps, a person who can recognize words in a language but not the grammar, and have to guess and sentence/phrase meanings by order and context.)
---- grammatical semi-literacy
Just to note, semi-literacy can be willful, not just a result of lack of education.
---- natural competence
Knows enough about grammar to write sentences with periods and commas; is capable enough with quotation marks. But their execution is mostly intuitive: punctuation marks go where they feel like they should go – and so, lots of commas. Unfortunately, I would say the majority of U.S. high school graduates do not move beyond this level.
---- skilled competence
This level has put effort into learning grammar. They've got commas mostly down. They'll catch subject-verb clashes. This is the level that will get you through a collegiate writing exam. It's what you need to survive at a job. Now, to people who can see such things, your limits will still be apparent; but, considering most everyone else you'll be dealing with will be this level of sophistication or lower, that's not such a big deal.
---- advanced skilled competence
These people can present the rules of how to use semi-colons and colons. They know the more arcane rules, like when to use a comma with quotation marks and when not to. They can hear dangling phrases and split infinitives and faulty parallelism when they come upon them, and retype sentences before they reach the period when they realize it's about to end in a preposition. They rarely look in the Chicago Manual of Style and are surprised. (That does not mean they don't ever look; but looking is for remembering, not learning.)
---- the grammatically compulsive
These people don't present the rules to semi-colons, they recite them. They actually worry about starting a sentence with a conjunction, and probably avoid doing so. And the use of contractions in writing is a serious issue of faith. They check and check again their handbooks. But they also take some pride in the results, seeing something to be said for a well ordered paragraph. When they mark up someone's writing, they are not only finding errors, they are also putting the world in order.
---- grammar nazis
Here is where the direction of the concern for grammar is fully turned about. Grammar nazis see grammar as a Victorian spinster sees social mores: grammar is the very meaning and ordering of the universe, and to break their rules is to speak blasphemy against Harry, George, and England. And, as such, they are egually – if not more – concerned with the grammatical mores of others as they are with their own.


Notice, that no where on the chart is snobbery. That was a conscious decision, for I have met grammar snobs at pretty much every level of sophistication starting at low skilled competence. You don't actually have to be good at grammar to be a grammar snob. You just have to think you're better at grammar than the person to which you're being snobbish, and see in that belief an opportunity for superiority. In fact, you can be a grammar nazi and not be a grammar snob. And that points out a problem with this one-dimensional spectrum: it begins with in individual's grammatical competence, and ends with the individual's attitudes toward grammar. So maybe my chart above is, in truth, two charts meshed together: one of degree of knowledge, and one of attitude.



---- mostly ignorant of grammar
---- uses grammar mostly through observing, and primarily coming out of how language 'sounds'
---- has been taught (or taught themselves) basic grammar
---- has been taught (or taught themselves) advanced grammar
---- is an expert at grammar (can recite the rules)



---- couldn't care less
---- satisfied with all they need to get by with their daily lives
---- desires skill in writing / wants to be good at writing
---- desires complex skill in writing / wants to be accomplished and capable of complexity in writing
---- demands perfection

But something has been dropped from that first line: the question as to whether these attitudes are directed toward the self or toward others. That issue lies in the aesthetic/nomic divide.

A nomic thinking individual is a rule centered individual. Not in the sense of OCD, but in the sense of understanding reality as being defined by truths. Rules are a primary way in which those truths are defended. Grammar is – or can be wielded as – such a set of rules. The more nomic the thinking of the individual, the more their approach to grammar is going to be that of an approach to fact: this is how English is, and this is how English is meant to be. The more a person demands perfection in grammar, the more grammar is, for that person, part of the means by which they define their world.[FN] And so we come to the quotation by Nietzsche, at the start of this post.

[FN] That sentence is probably going to be misread. I mean "demand" as in "demand of others."

The aesthetic, however, recognizes that facts and rules are abstractions, and serve a social purpose; and, as such, a purpose within language. It is in part through the rules of grammar that we are able to communicate with each other with any degree of effectiveness and efficiency. Without grammar, language becomes something like a charades game, where the speaker is putting out subjunctive, or adjectival, ideas, and the listener has to somehow bring those ideas together into an organized thought.

But in that the aesthetic recognizes that truth – and rules – are abstractions, the aesthetic approach to grammar is different: the rules of grammar are but tools that can be used to a number of purposes. If I wish to write a technical manual, I will follow the rules of grammar tightly, because I want to be as clearly understood as is possible. But, if I am writing a 300-line lyrical poem about avalanches and obsession, grammar becomes something that is used to the aesthetic ends of that poem: so I decide how strictly I follow it and where, and I twist it, and I bend it, add to it, and subtract from it.

But, never can I ignore it: or I end up, again, with that sort-of-charades game. As soon as I make a line break, I am effectuating grammar. Which, when it comes to creative writing, is the point. For there are a lot of "grammars" in language. There is grammar grammar, yes; but, then also, there are the "grammars" of rhetoric, of style. The grammar of narrative. Of metaphoricity. Of rhythm and rhyme. There is the grammar of the structure of poetry, be it formal, short, long, stanzad. There is the grammar of the short story, the grammar of the novella, of the novellette and of the novel. (And, of course, the grammar of genre, where the former is definitional of the latter.) Within, the grammars of characters, scenes, descriptions, and the grammar that oversees how they are all utilized with each other.[FN]

[FN] Keep in mind, as I am using the word grammar, I am talking about rules created out of convention. But I am also talking about rules that are created out of the nature of the medium itself. A 20-line dimetric poem as a wholly different structural grammar than a 40-line poem of alexandrines. And then, also, there is the grammar created by the writer themselves.

And so, in the "Attitudes" graph, above, when we get to "demands perfection," there is still the question of why? Is it because the individual's relationship to grammar is nomic in nature? That is the kind of person who sees grammar as the rules of the King's English, rules to be defended as though defending the very fabric of reality. (Which it, in fact, is.) Taken to its extreme, you have your grammar nazis, who demand adherence to grammar in the way of the spinster, above. But, then, is the individual's relationship to language aesthetic? Then, the demand for perfection is more personal: for example, it is demanded simply because that is the aesthetic demands the individual places upon themselves: their chosen medium is the King's English.

So, hopefully, you can see by now that there is another category – another axis – that has mostly been left out thus far: that is, grammatical creativity. One might say it is an oxymoron: but only if you define grammar within a nomic modality: that the world it truths and rules are needed to define, defend, and live by those truths. If you define it from the aesthetic, then the attitude towards grammar becomes a creative one. (And, I guess, we could also make a spectrum of grammar creativity. Simplified, I think it would look like this:


---- know what a semi-colon is supposed to do
That is, writing in accordance with and replicating/performing/reinforcing the various rules of the various elements of grammar. Grammar as prescriptive rules.

---- exploring/knowing what you can do with a semi-colon
Ergo the word, "creativity." Grammar as toolbox, as descriptive rules.


Now, creativity does not in any way relieve you from the necessity – if language is your chosen creative medium – of learning grammar. Going back to the first graph, above, a writer should strive to be deep within the "advanced skilled competence" category, with a touch of grammatical compulsiveness thrown in for flavor. On the "Attitude Towards Grammar" line, a writer should be well entrenched in the "desires compled skill" category. And there is no admissible excuse for any other attitude. So let me say that again:

If you are a writer, there is
for you not being
very well versed in grammar.

Why? I will give you a couple of reasons. First: language is directly related to thought. They are two sides of the same coin. In fact, the sophistication of your thought is both measured by and developed in part through the sophistication of your language. If you do not know how to use a semi-colon, you almost assuredly do not know how to think a semi-colon thought.

I will give you an example in demonstration. One of the things I liked to take time to talk about in composition/essay classes was the use of dashes and parentheses (in conjunction with the use of commas). Most college students have no real grasp of why or how to use those forms of punctuation. Then, I tell them to explore their use in their writing. So, throughout the remainder of the term, I will get a lot of writing with with dashes and parens, as the students are exploring how to use a new toolset. But also, they are learning how to think with that new toolset. Which is very much to say: they are learning new ways of thinking. By expanding your grammar skills, you are expanding your ability to think. Your writing cannot but improve as your writing becomes more capable of speaking more complex and complexly ordered thoughts.[FN]

[FN] And so I am sure there are English teachers now wondering how to grade that. The answer is, you don't. You simply let students explore, and give comment here and there (preferably in class, where everyone can hear and participate). Even if they are turning in papers where every third sentence has an aside slipped into it. So what. Let them explore. Talk about examples in class: because that is how you learn writing, by exploring and talking about it. Language (and creative) skills are learning in exploring while doing, looking at example, and discussion. Not, in the least, by any thought or effort by the teacher put into grading.

Second reason: Because grammar is your primary box of tools. Why it is that English majors and creative writing majors make up excuse after excuse for why they don't have to learn advanced grammar, why they don't have to study form, why they don't have to learn the major writers in the language, is utterly beyond me. I am flummoxed by it. (And, to be honest, it pisses me off to no end when I hear a poet talk about how you don't have to study Pound, Eliot, Donne, Tennyson, etc., because they are not "contemporary," whatever that means. Or they don't have to study Donne because they write free verse.) I guarantee you: your poetry speaks to the world your ignorance in your field.

Imagine, if you will, a cabinet maker who only knew how to use a hammer, a screwdriver, and a handsaw. Imagine the nature of the cabinets that kind of person would make. Believe me, master carpenters have tools upon tools. Tools sometimes that get used once every three months. But, because they have that tool, because they are good at using that tool, they can both make things and imagine things that the simple cabinet maker can not begin to conceive, or even know how to execute.

Here is the blunt, ugly truth. If you have never given serious thought to the theory of the line, your poetry speaks that ignorance. If you have never given serious thought and experiment to the use of semi-colons, colons, and dashes in the poetic line, your poetry speaks that ignorance – even in the absence of such usage. If you have never given serious study, practice, and experimentation to rhythm and sound, you poetry speaks that ignorance.

So, grammar. When it comes down to it, the charts above are fun, and they may help in recognizing different people's different attitudes toward grammar. And help a bit in understanding how to approach grammar (and where you currently stand in your approach to grammar.) But, in the end, if you are writer, then really there is only one attitude: to know and master the tools in your toolbox; and to be creative with them once they are mastered.


Now, it should be noted, that part of being a writer is knowing what you are not good at doing. As you develop, your learn those fallibilities so you can also learn to watch for them and correct them on their own. For example, in my writing, I have a major problem in introductory adjective phrases. If I never edited, every other sentence would have one. So I know I need to go through and take pretty much all of them out. But this is why you have readers/editors: to have someone find where you goofed, have someone who reins in your problem areas. Because the more creative you are, the more "creative" you are, if you get my drift.

Now, who do you want to be your editor? Someone who is in the advanced class of grammar people. But also someone who is creative with grammar in a way that they can understand what you are trying to do and, equally importantly if not more importantly, can yet tell you when you are failing. Grammar nazis are, actually, in certain ways limited in their editing ability for creative writing (indeed, for any writing, if they let grammar get in the way of ideation): that because they can not be creative enough on their own. (However, they are still worth using: it becomes your job to know which of their comments to ignore. That said, if they made a comment, you should still be paying attention, even if in the end you decide in your favor.)


Oh, the answer to the question: there are only two tenses in English: Past and Present. That is, root+(e)d and root+∅ (respectively, and obviously ignoring irregulars). A tense is a part of the conjugation of verbs. I live; I lived. That's it. "I will live" is not part of the conjugation of "to live," it is a construction; it is not tense, it is time.[FN] And there are more ways to give future time that with a "will." "I live tomorrow." "I live today, then I live longer." Etc. Now, have you ever thought about that you can do future in different ways? That there are more possibilities than just "will"? If not, a door has just been opened for you to expand your writing toolbox.

[FN] Let your kids bring that tidbit of grammatical truth to school if you dare.

By the by, it's tense and lax, not long and short. A long vowel is a vowel that is held for a longer duration.

And if you really want your kid to be sent to the principle's office for insurrection against the grammar of education, explain to them that a square is a rectangle; and a square is also a rhumbus; and a rectangle is a parallelogram (and so also then is a square). So: a square = a rhumbus, a rectangle, a parallelogram, and a quadilateral.