Grammar nerds unite!

In a book review on Salon.com, Laura Miller dips a toe in the prescriptive vs. descriptive linguistic debate, one in which some of us (no names) stomp around furiously when people use the phrase “where are you at?” and others (no names, but doubtless their mailboxes have unnecessary apostrophes scratched out) notice that everyone understands what it means, whether or not it is technically correct grammar.

Now, I heart Miller because she hearts David Foster Wallace, and that’s all I really need to know about a person. I believe, however, that she’s a bit too lenient with the descriptivists. She mentions her own pet peeve of dangling participles. Otherwise, she’s pretty laid back about the whole fall of civilization as we know it, at the hands of the business jargon creators, the advertising grammar bastardizers, and the genuinely lazy. (Please. I taught college English. I know some of it is laziness and “I have better things to do” -ism and “why bother” defeatism. But that most of it is really bad education in the early years wherein something like 50% of students are getting As.)

Ladies and gentlemen, would it kill us all to learn the proper use of “whom?”

I would like to announce, in light of this discussion, the production of my new album, Grammatically Corrected Songs. The playlist of final tracks:
I Can’t Get Any Satisfaction
Lie, Lady. Lie.
I Have Spurs That Jingle Jangle Jingle
You Are Nothing but a Hound Dog
Lie Down, Sally
Isn’t It Coincidental (and Generally Annoying but Not Ironic)?
and a medley of every song that should have “I Want You So Badly” rather than “so bad” but barring those that actually mean “I want you when you are bad,” regardless of their connotation for bad.

Send additional track suggestions to my producer. I’ll get to work on them when my band reconvenes next month.

Advertisements

Marketing 101

Dear Mr. Axelrod,
When you have an important message on a key policy issue from the leader of your political party, the email should not be titled “Got a few minutes?”

Aside from being grammatically incorrect (it should be “Have a few minutes?”) you almost guarantee having your email deleted before it’s been read. The answer to “got a few minutes” is always “no.” The answer to “To Whom It May Concern” is a universal, “not me; check for someone else while you’re in the trash can.”

If you’re sending out a short, compelling video about health care reform, maybe use the subject lines:
Four Minutes to Health Care Reform
Health Care Reform in Just Four Minutes
Health Care Reform in a Few Minutes
A Few Minutes to Health Care Reform.

This is just Advertising 101, people. Your only chance to be read is the headline. You have one second. “Got a minute?” doesn’t cut it. (Have vs. Got is Grammar 1A.)

(You can see the video on the White House site, but I’m not linking because I don’t reward poor grammar.)

Aaaah, bliss.

You know, sometimes it’s just good to be exhausted.

Now that Peanut has adjusted to Daylight Savings Time, a little government intervention I like to call The Fcuk with Parents Solstice, which was clearly invented and perpetuated by old men with no sense of empathy for the month that it takes to re-regulate a child’s sleep patterns after the shift, I’ve decided to join a gym that opens at 5am so I can workout before Peanut and Spouse wake.

This seemed more self-cudgelingly painful and ludicrous than volunteering for a lifetime of respecting my child’s needs, but the first morning I slipped out of the house before dawn, every moment was glorious. I woke groggy, but that was no different than the days Peanut wakes me in the wee hours. (Background: I have a kid who doesn’t sleep well. Never has. He wakes every 3 hours or so. He sleeps no more than 9.5 hours total, even with the waking. Totally normal, well precedented in my family, yet totally eroding the little patience with which I came to this parenting game. [NB: Do not email me with Babywise bullshit. Letting your baby cry is not parenting. Throughout the world children do not sleep until 3 or 4. It’s just biology. Stop telling me to force my kid to be different. He goes to sleep fine. He has nightmares. He wakes and needs us. Just because it’s killing me doesn’t mean I need your child abuse handbook.] And because of his sleep pattern, if I spend a little time in the evening with Spouse, and either clean or write, I’m looking at 6 or 7 hours of sleep, which is almost hourly interrupted by either a screaming child or a yowling cat. Daily considering asking the SPCA to take both.)

Being alone in a quiet house was exhilarating. Driving alone in the dark, without having to explain why, yes, we need to share the road with other cars and trucks, and that, if you really don’t want to share you ought find yourself a job and some money so you can build your own infrastructure, because the logistics of buying out the freeway system so you can watch the world go by from your car seat with a view unobstructed with other humans is a little out of mommy’s purview this week, was almost orgasmic. And the foggy sunrise was delicious. But far away the best part of getting up after 5 hours of sleep to exercise my wayward body into some semblance of energy was that I got to start, finally, Consider the Lobster, David Foster Wallace’s collection of essays.

This is my definition of heaven.

I would do the elliptical backwards for four hours straight to read that man’s writing. (I wish I could footnote in wordpress [not for some hackjob parody, but because I really need to add a few notes that are too long to put into the text], but I’m angry about the new design so I’ll do parenthetical asides, instead.) (To wit: ) (This month, I have to do the elliptical backwards because of the cast I’m in for the next month. And I get my actual fitness from the erg, but I can’t read while I row, and I can’t get my pedal stroke to functional at all well the cast. So elliptical backwards until I lose feeling in my foot, then switch to the erg, silently debating Wallace’s arguments in my head until I can feel my toes again.)

And Consider the Lobster,  and thoughtful and moralistic and borderline self-righteous (in all the right ways) collection of essays (predominantly articles he’s written for some of this country’s finest magazines) has eye-rollingly pleasurable topics nestled within. I’ve often recommended that my fair readers read or re-read Infinite Jest. But honestly, I may have found my favorite DFW piece, blissfully ensconced as I now am, seven pages into Wallace’s review of a grammar usage text. This chapter/article/review has me deliriously happy.

Without fail, Wallace’s writing brings me to two, independent, and wonderful conclusions. One, I am not crazy, but if I am, I am not alone in my particular breed of insanity. If no one else does, David Foster Wallace understands me. [NB: Yes, I know I should use the past tense. But because I am still coming to grips with his death, and because I prefer the critical approach of reading the text as always present tense, as always available to us regardless of the author’s state of being, I will say that he understands me, by which I mean that I feel understood when I read his work. I attribute no intention to this sensation, for I do not believe he wrote for me, personally. Issues with the whole “not knowing me,” bit, and all.]  Two: I need to get one hundred times smarter and better each day, and read more and write more because I am compelled to express myself as beautifully, compellingly, intelligently, and hilariously as this man did. I won’t get there, but I’ll live trying.

Now, of course, wiping away tears in the gym, thrice, I have a new conclusion, one I’ve been working on since September 15 when I found out: This world, each day, is poorer for having lost him. I, again, offer condolences to his family. And I, again, roll myself into an intellectual black hole wanting more of his mind spread—-like a freshly blended hummus made from a secret family recipe that will be lost after its last knowledgeable chef burns it in a passion-fueled fire and vows, because of the pain cooking causes him in the wake of a divorce from a woman who was his gustatory muse, never to blend that garbanzo-tahini-garlic extravaganza again—-across the pages of book and magazine. May Hollywood never, never violate his words with a film version. (Just saw Into the Wild last night, finally, and found, yet again, that the book was far better. Sorry, Mr. Penn. Love your work. But the film didn’t do justice to the epistelary memoir.)

Wallace’s review, the fourth piece in Consider the Lobster (after a riveting and pathetic look at the porn industry’s Oscar night, a scathing review of Updike’s latest self-absorbed book, and a brilliant explanation of what I’ve always found interesting about Kafka’s work—that it’s funny in a way few people comprehend) offers frenetic  grammatical satisfaction to those among us who cringe at the general linguistic ignorance of those around us. If you get off on words, and are passionate about the language in which you read, write, and speak, turn to “Authority and American Usage.” It strokes the grammar wonk’s ego, it oxygenates the fires of grammatical anger, and it offers 62 juicy pages of critical argument about the political nature of language.

62 mathafuckin pages, y’all.

Laugh all you want. I gladly fly my geek flag, higher today now that I know Wallace’s flag is right there in my courtyard, too.  To read that DFW, a man whose work I admire more than any other author I’ve read, in whose words I’ve found a friend and a home, and for whose memory I plan a long critical academic career (which might well having him doing subterranean 360s), gets just as frothy as I do when college students submit their first papers riddled with such eggregious errors that we feel the need to conduct an emergency English grammar seminar in our classrooms, pushing literature and critical thinking off the gurney and diemboguing our linguistic scalpels with the sole intent of making the world a better place to read.

I’m actually ready to get out of bed every morning, with maybe five hours of sleep behind me, to read David Foster Wallace’s essays again and again. I only wish I hadn’t quit reading his work during my grad school and baby years, because I feel like I’m playing catch-up, devouring his writing like a person who finds herself, after a full day of unblinking focus on a newborn, starving and ready to eat anything in the house; and just as she scours the cupboards for something edible, she turns around to find a gorgeous, tasty, well balanced, hot meal from a caring and likeminded friend just sitting there, as though it’s been waiting for her.

Goddamn he’s good.

Wait! Before you send out your holiday cards…

Dear friends,

I know this is a busy time of year for you. From the looks of last year’s holiday card, you start around now with the drafting of your family’s newsletter and photo-taking. I do love the updates. And the pictures. Whew! I can’t believe it’s been another year, but there’s the proof: pictures of kids I’ve never met and never agreed to be friends with, and not so much as the hint of your presence anywhere in your own family. Keep ’em coming!

Anyway, here’s the reason I’m writing: I can tell from the obvious time and energy that goes into your holiday extravaganza of correspondence that you send cards to a lot of people. And in so doing, you’re perpetuating a bit of a linguistic problem. So many look up to you that I’m hoping you can help me turn the tide back in favor of correct and precise language.

The thing is, your name and your family’s name fall into a certain category of words–those that take an “s” to become plural. And they take an apostrophe-ess when the singular becomes possessive. But, and here’s the kicker, when the plural of your name becomes a possessive, it takes an ess-apostrophe. I know that sounds like silly book-learnin’ talk, so let me break it down for you. I won’t use those pesky Smiths as an example. We’ve all had enough of them. They are just trying to keep up with the Joneses. But that’s another letter.

If your name, for the sake of argument, were Harkin, then you would be Sally Harkin. You know that, I know. Here’s where it gets trickier. If you owned a pencil, it would be Sally Harkin’s pencil. If, let’s be bold here, you had a family tailing behind you at some or most occasions, they would be Sally Harkin’s family. But if we’re talking about the whole family, you are The Harkins. And if your whole family has something tailing behind you at some or most occasions, like maybe a dog or a car or a genuinely wrong-headed political view, it would be the Harkins’ dog, Harkins’ car, and Harkins’ political ignorance.

So your holiday cards should not say The Harkin’s. Or From the Harkins’. They should say The Harkins. From The Harkins. Apostrophes are just not necessary. In fact, they’re kind of out of place in a family as full as yours. You have enough creatures roaming around within the confines of your family home that you don’t need extra apostrophes cluttering things up.

Now, don’t get me wrong. This isn’t as egregious as “10 items or fewer,” which none of the markets in my area seems to choose, favoring instead the “10 items or less” that is ruining our society. No, no. Your extra apostrophe is only problematic because, as I mentioned before, so many look up to you as an example. They, to be more like you, are adding apostrophes to their names, too. It’s similar to the phenomenon where someone, somewhere, saw CDs and DVDs and thought they looked too bare without punctuation. So every company and catalog starts listing CD’s and DVD’s, neither of which is really what they mean. Unless they are speaking of the CD’s songs and the DVD’s menus. Then, sure, bring on the apostrophe. But a spindle of CDs and a collection of DVDs? Plain, please, without the apostrophe a la mode.

Please forgive my trespass on this one. But if you don’t mind, please, let your friends the Traxes know about that whole superfluous and really rather appallingly incorrect apostrophe thing, too. Because Annie Trax thinks that when her family gets together they are The Trax’s. And I just know I can’t send her this letter. She’s not as evolved as you. She couldn’t bear to know that The Traxes’ winter mailings are taxing our circle’s good nature. For that matter, she couldn’t bear to know that her family’s good qualities, fine china, and dreadful children, should be labeled Traxes’. I’m sure you can convey it, with your usual wit and charm. Maybe something in your massive December 1 mailing?

Have a great week, dearie. I’ll let you go, for I’m sure you have to pick out your Thanksgiving decor AND start making the New Year’s favors this month. All my best!

Your friend,

Millicent Fussbudget

Please proofread your mailbox

Dear Neighbor,

Please excuse the intrusion into your personal life, but the sign outside your home beckoned. It made me feel at home, if not in a literal sense, at least comfortable enough to be honest with you.

I just want to let you know that the education system has failed you. I’m not sure whom to blame, but someone, surely, should have told you that, if your last name is Jones, then your family is The Joneses. And if you own a house all by yourself, and people call you Jones, then you can put a sign outside that says Jones’s. Otherwise, if more than one of you resides in your house, please, for the name of all that is sacred in the English language, if you must put out a sign, make sure it says, Joneses’. Now that you see how silly it looks, maybe you’ll flashback to the day you actually paid someone to burn Jones’ on that scrap of redwood burl

Better yet, please don’t decorate your home with your name. Or that tacky, glittery flag you put out every month. Nobody needs a flag to know it’s leaf season.

Your presence in this neighborhood means so much, and it would be just lovely of you to correct the aforementioned sign. Thanks ever so much, and keep up the over-watered, pesticide- and herbicide-laden gardening. The local children, pets, and wildlife thank you.

Sincerely,

Your Neighbor