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because I say so
Thursday, 17 April 2014
There's Always Time for Good Grammar

I confess to being one of those relics who believes that grammar is important. In fact, not only do I see it as a critical component of effective communication, both in written and yes, in oral form, I also find it enjoyable.

That's right. Enjoyable.

A cleverly crafted, thoughtfully organized and grammatically correct sentence is a thing of beauty. As a reader I cherish not only the descriptive nature of language in one's writing but the structure of it as well. Consider this example:

    Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita. Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, an initial girl-child…Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, exhibit number one is what the seraphs, the misinformed, simple, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns.

It is not only the imagery of Nabokov's prose that conveys the anguish and torment of his protagonist as he opens his classic story, it is the structure, the use of dependent clauses, the crafted listing that makes the language work so well.

I'm sure it's kind of annoying to be around.

In the office of my day job, one of the clerical staff (alas, we are all but forbidden from referencing them as 'secretaries' nowadays) told me she found herself being extra careful around me after overhearing a particular diatribe I had given on the ending of sentences in prepositions. Apparently, I made her nervous to speak in front of me for a period of time. Certainly that hadn't been my intention but I can't help but think the world might be a better place if more people were a little more trepidatious about speaking a little more often.

I have my own outrages, of course (doesn't every grammarian take particular umbrage at those errors he or she finds most troublesome - like using "they" when the gender of the pronoun is unknown but clearly singular?). Like Lynne Truss, who has turned a finicky obsession with the rules of language to financial success in her memorable Eats, Shoots and Leaves, the endless torture committed against the poor apostrophe in common usage can occasionally cause me near to physical pain. How difficult is it, people, for all of us to come to terms with the simple fact that the apostrophe does not connote plural? Not ever. Seriously, just stop it. This error finds its way into publication so often as to have almost become acceptable usage, or at least beyond the notice of most readers.

My wife and I frequently reference a hairdresser on Port Coquitlam's Shaughnessy Street thoroughfare who paid a sign maker to concoct this monstrosity: Florens Haircut's. Though it's been more than ten years since we lived near and traveled past it, aloud we still refer to the establishment as Florens Haircut Is.

My present pet peeve is the particular preposition "at." In the past number of years, it has become acceptable common usage to end sentences with "at," particularly as some kind of direct object for "where," as in "let's see where we're at." I have heard this specific outrage uttered in meetings full of professional educators, including English majors, leaders of organizations and yes, even college professors. When I try to explain to people, principally the prepositional offenders, why their usage is so offensive, I supply them with a simple task: replace 'we' with 'you' and see how ridiculously ebonics you sound.

Normally, I'm a big fan of Winston Churchill. He is, after all, the namesake of my protagonist in Deadly Lessons, Last Dance and W3.doc. Churchill was alleged to have proclaimed, "“This is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put," in response to an editor's prepositional editing suggestions. And on this front, he gets it right: there are those few, albeit specific, circumstances, in which I can accept a sentence that terminates with "with" or "from."

But don't push your luck.

Next week: When grammar gets in the way of story. Who knew I could fill two weeks of columns with grammar?

Posted by davidrussellbc at 12:01 AM PDT
Updated: Friday, 18 April 2014 8:50 AM PDT
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