Thursday, January 03, 2008

Thoughts on Grammar

A couple of weeks ago, at the well-known department store where I worked as a Christmas retail whore, one of the customers, upon hearing that I work as an English teacher, began questioning my grammar. In particular, he brought up the fact that I had used "have got" instead of his preferred version, "have". To him, "have got" was redundant. There was a crowd, so I only gave him a brief overview of my philosophy of English grammar, beginning with my role as a teacher of English the way it is actually used, my consideration of myself as a descriptivist rather than a prescriptivist, and ending with the somewhat arbitrary nature of several English grammar rules (my oft-used example being the rule that one should never split infinitives). But of course, as soon as I finished work and got home, I cracked open the Strunk and White to check the rule for "Have got" versus "have". The rule was simple: use "have" instead of the more colloquial "have got" in writing. Which I do. Generally.

But that all leads me to my first point: people are funny about grammar. When I tell people that I am an English teacher, they either treat me as a confessor or a Grand Grammar Inquisitor. People seem to imagine that I am either inwardly wincing at their grammar (I'm usually not, but more on that later) or that I am part of a secret us versus them Grammar brotherhood. Once I explain to the first group that teaching English is my career and I'm only going to correct their grammar if they pay me, they laugh and relax. The second group is slightly trickier to handle. I usually give the same descriptivist versus prescriptivist and arbitrary nature of several English grammar rules speech, but I don't think most buy it (I think they walk away from the conversation with the belief that I don't actually know any grammar rules). As annoying as these Grammar brotherhood folks can be, they are also very fascinating. Each one has latched on to a relatively obscure grammar rule, and when they hear people around them breaking the rule, they suffer from fingernails-on-a-blackboard pain. I would love to be able to design an experiment that trys to find a correlation between something (Personality? Religion? Myers-Briggs type?) and Grammar nitpickery (ie, are people with the INFJ personailty type driven to distraction when they hear teenagers use the word "like" as a conversation filler?).

Now, on to my second point. I claim to be a descriptivist, but that is not completely true. There are certain grammar points that cause me acute pain. For example, if I hear someone use fewer instead of less (or vice versa), I have to exercise superhuman strength to keep from muttering the correct word under my breath. And, this being the holiday season, I have (got) to rant (slightly) about something I absolutely detest. Now, generally, I don't mind when people verb nouns or adjectives to create new words. After all, this is one of the ways in which the English language evolves. I even wrote a paper about the backformation of "enthused" from "enthusiastic". But (and this is a very big but) I hatehatehate when people use "gift" as a verb. As in, "He gifted the card." Agh. Disgusting. First of all, English already has several perfectly acceptable ways to express that thought. Secondly, is gift a transitive verb? Intransitive? Who can tell me? No one. But anyway, I was griping about this to my friend S's husband, R, and he mentioned that he used "gift" as a verb when the act of giving was aggressive (as in "regifting" or giving a person a present that the giver knows the recipient doesn't need/want/like). I find this usage completely acceptable as it gives us a way to express a well-known phenomenon (do doooo da do da do). About an hour later, R used the word "food" as a verb to express the act of unloading extra food on unsuspecting friends and relatives. And yet another well-known holiday phenomenon was expressed in a succinct manner).

So, what brought all this on? Just the fact that I made 24 chocolate cupcakes this morning and have spent all day trying to think of people to food.

Note: I know I should proof-read a post about grammar, but I'm sick and my laptop battery is about to die. So I'm just going to go ahead and post this with the knowledge that I'm leaving myself open to having my grammar edited. Politely and with the best of intentions, of course.


At 8:37 PM, Blogger STAG said...

Well when y' gots t' do it, ya jest gots t'do it.

My pet peeve is when people pronounce the G in luxury. Or luxurious. I always try to make allowances for local accents, the example I led off with here is a very memorable quote I picked up in that hotbed of culture, Baltimore.

I remember Brenda telling about an ESL episode where she found herself carefully explaining to some Zimbabwean immigrant that "Jim, it is a "bucket of shit", not a "plate of shit", and expecially not a "bowl of shit". Then looking up at me when she got home and saying "I can't believe I said that!".

Or your face when I said "don't slop that poutine on the chesterfield, here, I'll fetch you a serviette. I swear I did not follow that with "lets watch the ninety nine and break open a two four. But I DID ask you if you wanted to borrow a touque when you were shivering one morning and your response was rather pithy.

At 8:49 PM, Blogger Ovonia Red said...

Pithy? Moi?

At 12:13 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My sister used to only best me at adverbs/adverb useage/etc. But now she possesses a better understanding of the entire language (historically and otherwise, I believe).
She went through a phase where adjectives-for-adverbs drove her nuts.

Me? Everybody knows I'm picky about grammatical stuff and that I can be teased about it...and maybe that I know it comes across as insufferable sometimes.
Good luck striking a happy balance of discussing your work at dinner parties without being labelled other than how you wish to be. :)
Happy 2008, too! ;)


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