Descriptive linguistics FTW!

Last night after a Board meeting, I was talking with friends and one expressed shock bordering on horror that I text using abbreviations and conventions created and commonly accepted within that linguistic space.

“I’m rather surprised to find out you’re an LOL and OMG and emoticon person.”

Well, I’m a linguistically adaptable person, actually. I don’t use those conventions outside texts and social media, in which characters are constrained and, generally, keyboarding is limited. I don’t say “LOL” in conversation, nor when using a keyboard. I do, though, use LOL where it is a standard part of the lexicon, because I’m speaking in a colloquial language and don’t feel the need, surrounded by LOLers, to destroy my reputation and thumbs with “oh, wow, that is truly funny.”  Recall David Foster Wallace’s review of Bryan Gardner’s Modern American Usage (which review appears in the nonfiction essay collection Consider the Lobster, and which review reiterated the annoying grammatical tic in which Wallace uses “which” in ways that make me itch ), in which Wallace explains that, when talking with Midwestern friends he uses expressions like “where you at?” because conditional, situational lexical conformity performs significant social functions including masking an erudite prescriptivist snobbery amongst those who disdain such ridiculousness. You know the type…for instance, the raised eyebrow of disdain arched toward a friend who fully embraces emoticons in text messages.

My friend last night seemed to believe that my using LOL and winky emoticons made me shockingly deviant in my linguistic standards. But am I actually failing the language because I OMG when I reply to a text about how awful I am at karaoke? Of course not. (I am, however, failing both George Michael and Rick Springfield when I belt their songs in a key somewhere between those singers’ ranges and my own. Said performances deserved several horrified OMGs.)

The older I get, the more I tend toward descriptivist linguistics. I have been out of academia long enough to know we can’t stem the tide of language shifts, texting enough that I appreciate the culture’s willingness to embrace an abbreviated language parallel to government employees’ acronym dialect, and old enough to know that my pedantic “kids these days are ruining the language” tendencies unveil a knowledge that kids these days are actually going to rule the world. And I, for one, I don’t want to be railing against their language from my rocking chair, cane aloft, countering every miscast objective who with “it’s whom, you linguistic hoodlums!”

Okay, yes, I do.

But I am in my old age moving toward the point of linguistic early adoption, at least within technological theaters.  I gleefully read the Atlantic’s piece about the new preposition, used in online English. Though I was late to OMG and LOL and LMAO, I have jumped on the prepositional-because trend, thanks to my social-media bestie, Twitter.

I love Twitter. I don’t read my feed as much as I used to, for in the land of “may your days be merry and bright starting next week with a rare Thanksgivukkah,” I don’t have time to get my Twitter fix. But I’m quite fond of the prepositional-because.

I do plan, however, on shaking my cane from my rocking chair and bellowing, “it’s not a ‘because-noun!’ Because grammatical naming conventions!”

Go check out the article, whether you find my texts irritatingly colloquial or not. The Atlantic has posted as pleasant a read on descriptive-linguistic developments as possible, and that’s saying a lot.

Which language deviances do you commit in limited settings? Do you eschew LOL unless you’re actually laughing out loud? Will you text a “K” to avoid all those messy characters in “okay”? Do you reject all emoticons or employ them with reckless abandon? Have you crossed into “srsly” and “pls” to save characters or do you share Steve Martin’s insistence on proper spelling in Tweets?

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And the winner is…

The spammer who composed this beauty:

“I was reading something else about this on another blog. Interesting. Your linear perspective on it is diametrically contradicted to what I read earlier. I am still contemplating over the various points of view, but I’m tipped to a great extent toward yours. And regardless, that’s what is so great about modern democracy and the marketplace of thoughts on-line.”

Why, nameless, faceless salesperson of all things godawful, you almost make sense. Most of the other spam is barely intelligible and so I celebrate you. This is b-lls-t, in part because I’ve never had a linear perspective in my life, and because things cannot be “diametrically contradicted to” something else (they are “diametrically opposed to” or “directly contradict”), and because modern democracy allows many fewer opinions than, say, Grecian democracy, and because since the late ’90s the Wired style guide assured us it was time to take the hyphen out of the word online (a trend followed fewer than two years later by most major dictionaries.)

Also, your fake comment has nothing at all to do with the post to which you appended it, and is the most blatant of attempts to fake your way through the assignment. I’ve seen that before, buddy. I teach English to those who believe they don’t need it.

Though your attempt is head and shoulders above the rest of the spam I get (and, honestly, better than the compositions of 75% of college freshman), it’s still schlock.

So. For your efforts: A. For your dirth of knowledge and annoying posing: F.

Still. Amusing. You win. Your prize is that I won’t post your spam in my comments because it’s still spam and obviously crap; but I will take your pathetic words and use them to amuse myself for the three minutes or so it took to deride you in public.

Yay for you, spam dude.

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.

Score!

My kid just yelled at the TV, despite his 104 degree fever, because the song informed him that “You and me; solve a mystery…”

He bellowed, “No! ‘You and I’!”

That’s my boy! You tell ’em, Peanut. In fact, let’s grab some Magic Markers and go to town on your books. There’s a lot of passive voice in “Pete’s a Pizza.”

It’s too easy to screw up contemporary English, so now you’re butchering Shakespearean English, too?

Sign painted on outdoor shopping mall of upscale shops: Feel not shame for thou (sic) love of shoes.

Thou love? No, you dunderheaded idiots. (I know, I know. I taught critical thinking. If you insult the party to whom you’re talking, you generally have no point. But this is a collection of stores who would sell me (if I had that kind of money or cared what I looked like) a $150 sweater and $200 pair of shoes while befouling my sensibilities and dainty editor’s eyes. Shit like that makes our retinas BLEED, y’all.)

Who is hiring these writers, and who is hiring these advertisers?

Thou is a pronoun. It’s Elizabethan “you.”  Thy is a possessive pronoun. Sixteenth century “your.”

So your big marketing push this holiday season reads: “Do not be ashamed of you (sic)  love of shoes.” Take it from me: you meant “thy” love of shoes.

And you painted it on the wall. Like your nudge-nudge-wink-wink lame attempt at a joke is supposed to get me to swerve off the road and into your dank, dimly lit parking garage in the unholiest of all consumerist greed-fests: December. You think classing up being elbow-deep in polyester and perfume-reeking humanity makes shopping somehow more appealing? Well, you’re entitled to your opinion. But you’re not entitled to your own version of Elizabethan English. Use a dictionary when you’re writing. Or an editor. Or stop letting the boneheads in the strategy department write your advertising.

***

On an upbeat note, I’m pleased as always to congratulate Trader Joe’s for being one of the few stores in the nation to have a sign reading, “12 items or fewer.” Kudos. Your “unique grocery store” image remains credible to the educated but underpaid masses who traipse into your store for an affordable selection of organic, sugary, and obscure. Thank you for having hatch green chili bread, organic egg nog, and Jack Daniel’s all ready for me, btw, so that my trip down the twelve-or-fewer aisle is particularly sparkly this holiday season.

Please, hire an editor or proofreader.

I cannot, can’t, will not, won’t go to a coffee chain whose napkins proclaim that their efforts will leave the world with “less napkins.” What, in the name of all that is holy, did David Foster Wallace not explain to us in his review of Bryan Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage but that structural linguistics, as descriptive yet still highly judgmental are a farce. Written and standard English need flexible but firm prescriptive rules. The descriptive tack is a ruse, allowing in errors in the name of colloquial usage, yet ignoring other, legitimate alternate usages based in judgment and priorities that hide nothing less than a political agenda.

In other words, just because some people say it incorrectly doesn’t make it correct. Or cute. Think differently.

Please, advertising companies, hire professional editors. You can’t say “less napkins” just because enough people don’t know the rule. It’s “fewer napkins.” You can count napkins. Therefore you can know just how many fewer napkins there are. Just because supermarkets get away with the egregious Ten Items or Less (sic) rather than opting for the correct Ten Items of Fewer; and just because advertising companies get away with the chalkboard-forkdragging of “Where Are You At?” rather than the simpler, more elegant, and freaking correct “Where Are You?” does not mean that you can claim frequent American usage and refuse to proofread your freaking napkins. Written language is standard as used by educated writers. And it’s fewer napkins. You can’t count sugar. So there you get to use “less sugar.” You can count cars. Fewer cars. You can’t count traffic. Less traffic. Fewer napkins, less sugar, fewer cars, less traffic. Less pollution, for that matter. And apparently, far, far fewer writers who actually know the language.

Sign of the apocalypse.

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.