I’m a Grammar Socialist!

A new colleague jokingly asked me yesterday if I were a ‘Grammar Nazi’ when he realised what I did to earn a crust. I laughed it off and suggested that instead – if I saw myself as anything – it was as a ‘Grammar Socialist’. I don’t suppose for one minute that I inadvertently coined a witty new phrase (I haven’t googled the term), but I think that it offered a fair summation of my attitude. Grammar seems to be such a stumbling block to many people who I deal with every day. Not stupid people but very intelligent people who will offer up their work at arm’s length, as if it were radioactive or contagious and ask me to edit and rewrite things for them because the burden of having to do things correctly is just too great.

I’m not a grammarian but I do have a working knowledge of the strictures of the English language. Any skill that I have is one born of a) reading and b) writing. It’s that simple.

It’s an attitude that seems to be born out by research as well, as in a recent article in The Atlantic: The Wrong Way to Teach Grammar.

Just as we teach children how to ride bikes by putting them on a bicycle, we need to teach students how to write grammatically by letting them write.

And I wholeheartedly agree. In the workshops I’ve given on copywriting, the biggest piece of advice that I give to people is to read their work out loud. The chances are that if if sounds OK then it is fine to use. People instinctively kn0w when something doesn’t sound right, but are often at pains to know what it is. Turning the words into sounds is the best way to fix this – far better than poring over one of the thousands of grammar readers out there. when I suggested this during a session a few weeks ago, there was an audible intake of air from the participants as the scales fell from their eyes and they seemed liberated before my eyes.

Could it really be so simple?

I’m not suggesting that the rules should be thrown out of the window, but they shouldn’t be allowed to shackle creativity and confidence. Reading and writing are the best advantages that any writer can give themselves and, like learning any skill, practice will yield results.

The etymology of swear words…

The New Statesman has a fascinating article on the derivations of some of my favourite words: fuck, shit and cunt.

In a concerted effort to keep these Anglo-Saxon contributions to the English language alive, I’ve been routinely using these on a daily basis and in the widest possible range of combinations and scenarios. In fact, on occasion I’ve been likened to both Kenneth Tynan (the first person to say ‘fuck’ on British television), and to a sufferer of Tourette’s Syndrome.

Most fascinating to me was the origin of ‘cunt’, which despite the revulsion it still elicits in many women, is comparatively more politically correct than ‘vagina’.

Originally, rather than being a taboo word, it was the general descriptive term for the vagina. Cunt is, etymologically, more feminist than vagina, which is dependent on the penis for its definition, coming from the Latin for “sword sheath”.

Of course, my first thought on reading this was ‘Fuck me! What a cunt I’ve been not knowing this shit to begin with!’


Bad reviews…

Not of my own writing (thankfully!), but book reviews generally are on my mind today. This article on i09 led me on a digitally intertextual journey to Slate and then to Metro to discover Eleanor Catton’s piece on literature and elitism.

Moved to respond to online criticism on Twitter over the use of the word ‘crepuscular’ in a Paris Review article, she explores whether the use of a large and informed vocabulary is indeed evidence of elitism. Where does the writer stand when deciding which adjective to use: should she assume a higher level of erudition in the reader, or dumb it down to appeal to the masses?

Catton took some time to research poor reviews on Amazon and Goodreads in order to ascertain what was eliciting negative feedback. In doing so she is able to draw a clear distinction between criticism and product ratings:

I noticed the recurrence of three principal objections: (1) this book was confusing; (2) this book was boring; and (3) this book was badly written … “Confusing”, “boring” and “bad” are fine complaints, and in many cases may be pertinent complaints, but they are not criticisms. They are three different ways of saying that the work in question failed to evoke any response from the reviewer at all. Far from describing and critiquing a literary encounter — the job of criticism — such “reviews” only make it clear that a literary encounter never took place.

Most it seems are written in the same manner in which people review everyday products such as toasters and televisions. This seems to reflect how many have now come to see art as just something else to be consumed, rated and discarded with a single star if it proves too difficult.

And what does what we choose to read say about us – and should it even matter?

I’ve moaned in the past, to anyone who will listen, that adults reading Harry Potter books are a sign of society’s increasing infantilism and resistance to anything worthy of effort. I’m probably wrong. I’m probably being elitist. And I readily accept that people are probably saying the same thing about me when they see me leaving the comic shop laden with the latest X-Men and Batman issues.

So apparently we make judgements about each other for the slightest reason, from our choices of clothes, to our accents, to our taste in literature. Wasn’t it ever thus? The difference is that our shallowness (or snobbishness) is now on display for the world to read through star-ratings and feedback boxes in websites.

But these are obviously not worthy of our time and for the most part should be ignored. This is not elitism but is what I’m going to boldly assert as a statement of fact: if you consume books as you consume everything else in life, then your opinion is of very limited (if any) value to most people in the literary world. It will perhaps tie you to one particular marketing demographic but that’s all. Stick to ghostwritten celebrity biographies (are autobiographies still autobiographies if they are ghostwritten?), and stay with the reading books by authors who don’t have any expectations of your level of intelligence.

Did I just make a horrible judgement there…?