Monday, September 15, 2008

Toad, Dusty, Ray, and the Grammar Police

It has been widely recognized that the New York roster had a remarkable blend of talent and intelligence. What is perhaps less widely known is the intelligence extended well beyond the ultimate field into the minutiae of the English language and its usage. Several members of the team routinely engaged in discussions of proper grammar, as well as parsing the sometimes subtle distinctions among fact, opinion, conjecture, and supposition. One might suggest that had we not been beating teams so handily and therefore had so much time to kill we would never have expended such mental energy on such idle matters. I like to think that even if our games were more hotly contested, we would still have found the time to engage in what was, for us, more than an idle pursuit. Regardless, those of us who were so inclined did discuss such things, even during timeouts, much to the consternation of our less linguistically inclined teammates, a practice which collectively earned us the moniker, the Grammar Police.

I admit with no small degree of embarrassment that we were only volunteer policemen, ersatz grammarians, proudly strutting about in uniform and badge but lacking both the firepower and the training to qualify as official enforcers of the laws of the language. You can be fairly certain that we didn’t even always understand the laws we were attempting to enforce. Nonetheless, like other volunteers the world over, our hearts were in the right place, even if the same could not always be said of our modifiers.

The years passed, our greatness waned, but my love of the language and its many arcane rules did not fade in the least. When a life-altering experience led me to switch careers, I put my volunteer’s uniform in storage and enrolled in the Police Academy. A short time later, I graduated with honors, a full-fledged, Harcourt-Harbrace Handbook trained, sentence diagramming member of the National Order of Grammar Police.

In the movie Training Day, relative rookie Ethan Hawke is acquainted with the hard reality of what real policing is like by veteran Denzel Washington, and it is in no way what he might have expected from reading the manuals at the Academy. The same can be said of my first assignment in the precinct that includes West Johnston High School.

For starters, I soon learned that my partner, who has a master’s degree in journalism from an institution of “higher” learning I won’t name (Kansas State), couldn’t identify a preposition in a sentence. Later that year, when a dispute with my captain landed me in her doghouse, that partner was given my Honors English I beat. The following year, the Chief of the Department caused us to lose the county-wide, departmental spelling competition when she misfired on “connoisseur,” insisting despite my protestations that it only contained a single s.

As the years wore on, my insistence on doing things by the book isolated me from the rest of my fellow officers. On my beat, students were not allowed to get by using the wrong case, make do with sloppy spelling or punctuation, or muddle through with flawed subject/verb agreement. My colleagues, thinking I was trying to make them look bad, resented my adherence to the letter of the law. When my methods were successful, when crimes against the language dropped on my beat, they attributed it to the caliber of my students rather than to my practice of stringent enforcement of the grammarian’s code. I suppose things hit rock bottom when it became known throughout the department that it was standard practice on my beat to have my students mine the school newspaper for errors as part of their weekly assignments. I became an outcast, no longer even called by my first name, but referred to only as “Dobyns,” most often in the context of, “Don’t you hate Dobyns?”

Looking back, I’ve often wondered if I might, just possibly, have gone too far. I mean, I wasn’t just a member of the Grammar Police. I was Grammar Supercop, and I really can’t blame my fellow officers for finding me unbearable. Strict, unabashed, and unwavering adherence to the rules, even rules as sacrosanct as those of English grammar and spelling, can be a little tedious, even when it’s well-meant. Perhaps I should have loosened the reins a little, looked the other way on occasion, let some of the less serious violations slide. After all, everyone else was doing it. I guess it was something about the uniform that made it hard for me loosen up. But now that I’m no longer a member of the force…

Which brings me to Toad -- passionate, linguistically challenged Toad. Yes, his posts, comments to my blog, and probably his grocery lists are rife with spelling errors, but looking through the prism of my former grammar zealotry, so what? Does it really matter? Most of the time I know what he meant to write, and even when I’m a little confused, I can usually gather from context which of the possible meanings he was shooting for. In fact, it’s been shown through an oft-repeated study (that I think originated at Cambridge) that when it comes to matters of comprehension correct spelling is over-rated. Factors like word shape, initial and terminal letter accuracy, and context have more impact on comprehension than accurate spelling. And since the goal of all language use is communication, who cares if he can spell, so long as I can understand him?

Which brings me to Dusty, whose carefully written elucidation of his previous comment seems, for the moment at least, to have adequately quelled Luke’s desire to smash his face in with a baseball bat (Ichiro model, I’m sure). Although Dusty clearly possesses linguistic skills to spare and spelled every word in his initial comment correctly, he fell a tad short on the communication front. I will openly admit that I was totally lost, and on reading Luke’s response I went back and re-read Dusty’s comment, simply because I had missed both the slight of teachers and the general doucheyness that Luke had detected. On a second read I still didn’t understand, but does that mean that if I needed a second read of a manuscript I was submitting I’d send it to Toad before I sent it to Dusty? Not bloody likely.

Which brings me to Ray, who used his comment on my blog to take a swipe at Toad’s spelling before he got around to the really important issue, me. For the record, I have no problem with personal attacks, misdirected aggression, off-topic diatribes, or anything else someone might post under the guise of “comment.” It all qualifies under my liberal definition of discourse; bring it on. But Ray’s related post to Toad’s rsd thread, mired amid the drivel, raises an important point that bears repeating lest it be lost: sometimes what you write isn’t the only thing we’re reading.

Readers have active minds, and even as we’re processing the content, deciphering its meaning, making associations to stored knowledge, and wondering if the person in the next cubicle is going to see us scratch ourselves, we’re making assumptions about the writer. Hence, Toad is ignorant, Dusty is a douche, and Luke has some anger management issues. Any or all of these might have some merit, but none of them was explicitly stated; they were all inferred by readers who were, either consciously or subconsciously, filling in the blanks between the lines.

So, without taking sides, I think Toad should consider the constructive part of Ray’s criticism as just that. There are people who will be more likely to give his candidacy for the UPA board support, or at least consideration, if he takes the time to carefully construct his position statements, and then takes a little more time to proofread them. I might also suggest that, in addition to being a valuable exercise in self-improvement, using proper spelling, grammar, and punctuation in written communication might come in handy should the day ever come when Hurricane Francis bears down on the Carolina coast and wipes out his millions. A poorly written cover letter or flawed resume is often the first thing that gets a job seeker disqualified, even if he did once have more money than the person doing the hiring.

I think Dusty might have learned a thing or two about communication from this discussion as well. His recent comment was a joy to read, and was a beautiful illustration of something that is often forgotten. Good writing is hard, but the effort is worth it, because it has always been true that the harder you work at your writing the easier your words are to read. Well done.

To Ray I say that although I have appreciation for the point I think you were trying to make, I detected a note of condescension in your writing that probably made it hard for Toad to accept your criticism, however well-meaning it might have been. I am not, however, suggesting you change your style; I’m a former member of the Grammar Police, not the Tone Patrol.

Finally, in case you were wondering what happens when veterans of the force lose their edge, when their previously way honed skills become dull from disuse, consider this:

On a recent weeknight, a couple of friends/former teammates from the great World Champion Red Tide ’98 team were in town, and we found ourselves in Union Hall, a favorite Park Slope hangout. In addition to having indoor bocce ball every night, Union Hall has an occasional grammar and spelling competition. We were cajoled into entering by the jovial emcee, and made our way downstairs looking forward to what we assumed would be a very relaxed event where we would all be reminded, in the nicest way possible, how stupid we are. Instead we experienced an excruciating evening of humiliation at the hands of the formerly jovial emcee who turned quickly into a Grammar Nazi, and were also reminded, in a not especially nice way, how stupid we are.

Through a series of spelling questions (caipirinha, Worcestershire, radicchio) and grammar questions (transitive/intransitive verbs, restrictive/non-restrictive clauses, subjective/nominative cases, past perfect progressive tense) the pool of contestants was whittled down to the final 5. Those five were then brought up on stage where, prior to answering all subsequent questions, they were required to do a shot. That’s when things got really ugly.

For the record, I finished third, eliminating myself after several rounds of shots by misidentifying a verbal and misspelling crustacean, a word that is significantly easier to spell before you do a pineapple upside down cake shot.


Anonymous said...

You definitely have a gift for a great turn of phrase. A favorite line: "Nonetheless, like other volunteers the world over, our hearts were in the right place, even if the same could not always be said of our modifiers." Awesome.

Mackey said...

Really, saying that anyone who's studied and taught a subject has a "gift" is selling short all the years of work and effort that went in to getting to the point where it seems effortless.

And it does seem effortless. I'm glad I left your feed on my reader; there was a long drought and I was beginning to worry. A bit late, but...welcome back.

Anonymous said...

I didn't write that Kenny's precise grammar & spelling was a gift. I implied that he has a gift for clever phrasing. That's a gift you can nurture, but it's still a gift. Knappy

Anonymous said...

grammar police? ugh! 2 things seperatly i never liked that didnt like me back. put em together and i know that spells(HA, i kill me) trouble for me. So thanks for throwin me a bone and lettin me off the hook there officer dobyns(which i know in some ways had to be dificult for you). it takes me back to the time they found my bowl at the boarder two days after i lost it in toronto at worlds back in 91......and they just sent me on my way. Of course you've caught me red handed with the goods, so.....guilty as charged. what can i say, my brother seemed to get all the good athletic and grammar genes where as i got all the "i dont really give a flyin fuck" genes.

The real irony in this for me is that all these other "grammar police"(who also seem to be pretty strong spirit zealots) are critisizing me for essentially the same thing i'm critisizing ultimate for. which is how we present ourselves. it seems to me, they are overly serious about presenting oneself ultra professional in a BoD setting and then underly serious about presenting the sport even slightly professional on the field. whats that word again???? oh yea, hypocrasy.

i AM gonna try and retain any lil' tid-bits i can as my kids make their way through the 12 year learning process but it isnt likley that i'd do more than hire somone to proffread my resume after hurricane francess hits....that is if hurricane "shit hitting fan" dosent strike first. so basically i got that popeye philosophy goin. and i think the fact that i really DONT give a shit just frustrates some people(SZ's mostly) even more.

whats really wierd is that, even in all my ignorance, i pretty much got what dusty was sayin from the get go, which was......basically "the man" SUCKS!!!(even if that man is a cunt bitch of a woman), so get the fuck used to it.