Today I begin the online publication of a new unwritten book titled “The Glamour of Grammar.” Depending on your point of view, “Glamour” will be a prequel or sequel to “Writing Tools” and will be blessed with the same publisher, Little, Brown. Many of you will remember that the essays that grew into the book “Writing Tools” first appeared on the Poynter Web site. It will be the same with these new essays, which I hope to deliver to you on Tuesday and Thursday of each week for the rest of the year.
There are several ways you can help me write “The Glamour of Grammar”:
1.) Please offer any feedback you think might help me improve the work.
2.) If you find any mistakes in these drafts, please call them to my attention.
3.) If you have some grammar and language issues you’d like me to address, you can pose them on the blog or to me privately at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Writing a book in front of your readers is a little like trying on your brand new bathing suit for the first time on a public beach: folks will see a little more than you desired and a little less than you hoped.
So here it comes, ta da, for the first time ever:
The Glamour of Grammar
A Painless and Practical Guide to the Elements of English
Introduction (Part I)
English is your language. It does not belong just to book authors, poets, copy editors or grammar teachers. It belongs to you.
It is a great language with a dramatic history and an impressive future. Born on a soggy island in the North Atlantic, it has changed so much that if you heard the earliest poems in what we now call Old English, they would sound like gibberish. In the thousand years or so since the Angles and Saxons got us going, English has changed in incalculable ways. It has evolved as a result of invading and being invaded, of technological changes from the printing press to the cell phone, from mysterious shifts in sound and meaning (one of which has the epic name The Great Vowel Shift, which we derided in graduate school as The Great Bowel Shift). Most of all, it has changed from use.
Before his death in 1400, Geoffrey Chaucer wrote that the “form of speech is change.” From Chaucer to Elvis, from Shakespeare to Run DMC, from poets to pornographers, from doo wop to hip hop, the English language has served more and more users in the task of making meaning, to the point where it has spread across the world and is, arguably, the most common and practical language in the history of human kind.
In my travels to Singapore, Denmark and South Africa, English was the only language I needed to connect with others and work through the challenges of the day. Even in Spain and Brazil, I could piece together words in English, Spanish and Portuguese well enough to get by. (Pointing and smiling helped a lot.)
So consider yourself a member of one of the largest “discourse communities” or language associations in the world: speakers, readers and writers of English. There are some people who would lead you to think that you are unworthy of membership in this English language tribe. I think of them as language bullies. They may think of their tyranny as benevolent, concerned as it is with proper grammar, usage, spelling, punctuation and other elements of language. They see a sign misspelled or mispunctuated in a store window and declare that the apocalypse is upon us. Their standards are so unnaturally high that they have the opposite of their intended effect: They persuade us that, when it comes to language usage, we suck. (On your behalf, I’ve used that last verb intransitively.)
I’m writing this book so you can feel included, rather than excluded, from what scholar Frank Smith once called the “literacy club.” It will help you live inside your language so that one day you will feel your language living inside of you. I can’t really describe for you what living a life of language feels like, but I’ll try to show you, instead. It requires some technical terms, but not as many as you think. It means occasional field trips to such language meadows as grammar, syntax, usage, spelling, punctuation, lexicography, history, semantics, rhetoric, literature, diction, etymology, poetics, language geography and foreign languages. Words and definitions that now seem strange to you will become second nature.
One of the most surprising and delightful connections in the history of the English language is the relationship between the words “grammar” and “glamour.” The second, says the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), is an altered version of the first, citing an ancient association between learning and enchantment. In other words, back in the day it was thought that if you were smart enough to know grammar, the basic elements of language, you might be clever enough to convert that power to allure, amaze, even seduce. Grammarian as word wizard.
Wow. Grammar has taken a bit of a nosedive since then. Today grammar connotes everything that is unglamorous: absent-minded professors; fussy schoolmarms; British grammazons with binding names like Lynne Truss; nagging perfectionists; pedantic correctionists; high school students asleep at their desks, stalactites of drool hanging from their lips. Long lost from grammar are the associations with power, magic and enchantment.
Which is another reason I’m writing “The Glamour of Grammar.” A little grammar, you’ll learn, can go a long way. A little grammar will lead you to a lot of grammar. Who knows? A splash of grammar behind the ear — or the knee — might even be, dare I say, sexy. (I confess a bit of a crush on Mignon Fogarty, the author known worldwide as “Grammar Girl.”)
Many old timers, dreaming of a Golden Age of learning that never existed, wonder: “Why don’t we teach grammar any more? But we do, in school after school, classroom after classroom. A better question might be: “If we teach grammar, why don’t people learn grammar?” The answer, I would argue, is simple: Because we teach grammar, syntax, punctuation, spelling — all the elements of language — out of context, outside of making meaning as a reader, a writer or a speaker. By doing so, we make grammar forgettable.
“The Glamour of Grammar” will offer another way. Every little lesson in this book will point you to a practical application. I’ll carry my argument one step farther: There is no need to learn grammar if you’re not going to use it. Good spelling is useless except to represent proper words and avoid distraction of the reader. Punctuation has no value except to point the reader toward pace, emphasis and meaning. Subjects and verbs are dusty academic terms unless you can join them together with a purpose.
Next time: Introduction (Part II): What the Big Bopper taught me about grammar.
[How am I doing so far? What advice do you have for me? What kinds of language problems or issues would you like to see me address?]