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Monday, August 8, 2011

Mentor Monday: Language Evolves and Grammar Lurches Along: On Keeping a Toehold on Stampeding Style (Part 1), by RJ Robertson

Welcome to our new feature, Mentor Monday. Every second and fourth Monday, we will feature helpful articles on all aspects of writing, from the craft of writing to the business of being an author. This week, we feature regular ShopNotes contributor RJ Robertson and his four-part series on grammar. Enjoy!

Language Evolves and Grammar Lurches Along: On Keeping a Toehold on Stampeding Style, Part 1
by R.J. Robertson


"Many years ago a wise and cynical man proved that the way a person talks is the most important thing about him." -Robert A. Heinlein, in The Cat Who Walks Through Walls

Foreword:
I got this job because – having been educated before the era of “don’t inhibit a child’s self-expression” – I thrust myself unwittingly into the role of Curmudgeon of Grammar in the Evanston Writers’ Workshop.

The C of G is not exactly a knightly title, you understand, but it does have one faintly noble perquisite: you get to criticize the work of writers better than yourself. I populated this role, without realizing what I was doing, by complaining about too many liberties being taken with English grammar in otherwise excellent work submitted for critique in the Evanston Writers’ group.

Unlike with the younger generation – most of whom seem to have learned English in the polyglot culture of popular media, modified by the linguistic license rampant in immigrant cultures thrown together in our large cities – I learned grammar from a gentle, but no-nonsense British lady who taught it in one quarter of my first year at university. It was a sacred mission for her, and it spread to us, her students, as she instilled the rules of English, and convinced us why our language needed its rules.

The latter point is well put in E B. White’s explanation of why he took up the cause pioneered by Will Strunk in The Elements of Style. White said, “If every word or device that achieved currency were immediately authenticated, simply on the ground of popularity, the language would be as chaotic as a ball game without foul lines.” If you examine Strunk and White on style and Lynne Truss’s, Eats Shoots and Leaves, on punctuation, I think it will not be hard to convince yourself of the aptness of White’s dictum.

To be continued...

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