Grammar Can Be Dangerous




“A badly made sentence is a judgment pronounced upon its perpetrator,” wrote William Gass, “and even one poor paragraph indelibly stains the soul.” He set his course for a Platonic purity (though he was far too Baroque a soul to achieve it, his sentences jammed with clauses and effusions of metaphor and overflowing with particulars and parenthetical wit).

“How can any literate individual not feel passionate about grammar?” asks my favorite curmudgeon, Bryan Hollerbach, whose knowledge of the King’s English rivals the masters. “Grammar constitutes the floor plan for language, and, thus, the shaky edifice of our very existence.”

The point being how much it all matters. Sentences, syntax, grammar, spelling, punctuation—our preferences vary as dramatically as our fetishes, yet we are certain we are correct and flat-out angry at those who refuse to admit it.

And so, when I learned that Ellen Jovin, a thoroughly nice woman, was traveling across this fractious nation and setting up her Grammar Table on its oft-bloodied sidewalks, I worried for her. There is no knowing, these days, what might happen if you dare to defend the Oxford comma or, worse, a semicolon. Paul Robinson spoke of feeling “almost morally compromised” when he used semicolons, and Kurt Vonnegut called them “transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing.”

At least Jovin did not have to deal with Edward Abbey’s instruction to the editors of The Monkey Wrench Gang”: “I would prefer a minimum of goddamn commas, hyphens, apostrophes, quotation marks and fucking (most obscene of all punctuation marks) semi-colons. I’ve had to waste hours erasing that storm of flyshit on the typescript.”

Maybe she was safer in the streets.

Her new book about her adventures, Rebel With A Clause: Tales and Tips from a Roving Grammarian, is gentle and chatty, like her, more concerned with complimenting people’s interests and soothing those who have endangered their marriages, work relationships, and sanity by falling repeatedly on a particular sword.

Even so, she encountered a man whose relationship ended because he corrected the woman’s grammar. A woman who gave up her therapist because the therapist said, “Between you and I.” A woman packing a Sharpie and prepared to use it if she saw a sign with a missing apostrophe. A married couple who had been wrangling for years, not about money or sex or how to load the dishwasher but about the Oxford comma. Casual grammar buffs as contemptuous as F. Scott Fitzgerald (“an exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke”), others vicious about the misuse of “literal” and the welcome now given to the prodigal “jerry-rigged.”

“People have taken today’s English and thrown it to the ground,” one of Jovin’s visitors said in despair. (He needs to have a beer with Lionel Shriver, who has decided that “the em dash effectively has no rules, and is therefore horribly suited to an era of semantic anarchy.”)

Yet beneath all the grumbling, nervous questions, and smug, tsking disapproval runs an undercurrent of love. Grammar’s fans know that following (or thoughtfully breaking) certain rules of usage can add meaning, edge, emphasis, beauty. Hollerbach points out the etymological link between “grammar” and “grimoire,” a book that began as a quick-reference “grammar” of magic and evolved into a manual for sorcerers of all sorts.

Jovin had the sort of visitors who remember how old they were when they began using semicolons. Yet she refused to be bent out of shape by certain arguments. Take the sentence “I ate one, too”: “I have seen elaborate mythologies about how this comma and how its absence or presence affects the meaning,” she writes, “and so far I am unmoved.” When someone fusses at her about ending sentences with prepositions, she refuses the contortions required to obey that rule at all times. “There is far too much preposition agitation nationally,” she says. “I do not share that agitation. Agitation is not good for blood pressure.”

She will sometimes say “This is Ellen” to avoid the stilted “This is she”: “I definitely won’t say, ‘This is her.’ But I will say ‘It’s me.’ Like when I call my husband and he picks up the phone, I don’t say ‘It is I, your wife!’”

Nor do I. But I would have put that exclamation point outside the inside quotes.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.