My Eternal Grammar Struggle
Wikipedia defines grammar as “the set of structural rules governing the composition of clauses, phrases, and words in any natural language. The term also refers to the study of such rules, and this field includes phonology, morphology, and syntax, often complemented by phonetics, semantics, and pragmatics.” Lots of wisdom in those words.
I define grammar as a complete pain. I am not against the use of grammar or have some objection to the rules. I’m lucky to speak a language with many well-defined rules. My issue is that the iron-clad grammar rules are less iron and more rust.
Where did these grammar rules come from? Long ago, people started speaking. During this time, they did not have rules; they just spoke. Later, the invented rules enabled language consistency. However, the rules had to have exceptions. “I before E, except after C.” And yes, I know. This is technically a mnemonic and not a rule, but it is one we all know.
Today, we learn about these rules from various sources. For writers, the gold standard is The Chicago Manual of Style, which proudly proclaims it is “the venerable, time-tested guide to style, usage, and grammar.” There are other modern sources like “The PC is not a typewriter” and the “Grammarly Handbook.” My problem occurs when the “experts” disagree or have no opinion.
I will be the first to admit that my grammar is at best, OK. [Side note. Is it ok, Ok, OK or okay?] The good news for me is that there are excellent editors. But what happens when the editors disagree with each other? Their answer is, “This difference does not matter.” My goal is to be consistent.
Here is an easy one. How do you write numbers in a sentence?
There are 52 playing cards.
There are fifty-two playing cards.
There are fifty two playing cards.
This should be easy. Pick one of the three and go with it. The Chicago Manual of Style states that for under 100, one should write out the numbers and use a dash. “There are fifty-two playing cards.” For numbers over 100, one should write in numerals. “There are 152 playing cards.” Other sources dictate it should always be one or the other, not both. Another source says you should use written-out words inside the quotes and numerals outside. Another source says that for non-technical books, we should write the words out, and technical books should only use numerals.
I don’t care! I only want to be consistent. So, I made up a new rule. For numbers under twenty, I write them out and use numerals for the rest unless it is the beginning of a sentence I write them out. Is this the Gold Standard? Nope, but it is consistent and something I can work with.
Let’s look at a complex example.
What’s your problem?!
What’s your problem?!!!
What’s your problem? !
What’s your problem!?
What’s your problem!
WHAT’S YOUR PROBLEM?
In this sentence, somebody is yelling out a question. The writer emphasized this yelling with a “!” What’s the proper way to use punctuation? This is not clear. The Chicago Manual of Style has no specific rule to cover this issue. Opinions rage all over the map, and I go with “?!” because this is what most internet opinions suggest. Should we capitalize Internet? Another confusion. My opinion is that “?” trumps the emphasis “!”, but the emphasis “!” is still required. I also hate WRITING IN CAPITOL LETTERS BECAUSE IT SOUNDS LIKE YOU ARE SHOUTING AND IS DIFFICULT ON THE EYES!
What an impossible example? “There are three two’s in the English language.” That is a perfectly valid sentence, but it is impossible to properly write. Should we make up a fourth two? Call it “tu” “There are four tu’s in the English language.”
There is another widespread issue with grammar, and this comes down to “writing style.” While this is technically not grammar, I call it grammar. For example, the dialog for a play/movie/book might have random grammar. This is because the “speaking” person naturally talks that way. This gives the impression to the reader that the character is uneducated. A technical or legal document would have terse sentences that make little sense. A poetic or dramatic work has flowery words without punctuation. Why are all these different regarding grammar? I would prefer that clear rules apply without exception to all forms of writing.
Some people are complete rule stickers. I also find that these same people never seem to have anything nice to say about my writings. They cannot get over their own grammar hangups and enjoy my written thoughts. This issue has been present since the dawn of my writing. Side note. I nearly flunked my college psychology class because of this “problem.” Yes, there were other issues at play.
I find documents with “proper grammar” read blandly. The authors spend too much time on structure and do not use “flowery” (like we naturally speak) sentences with normal words. In engineering, such documents can be troubling because I need to accurately grasp a concept and not get hung up on a confusing sentence.
Another issue with grammar stickers is that their writing looks like a legal document. Every other word has a comma or semicolon after it, and the document becomes a long sentence contest. Reading one of these “correct sentences” out loud is like reading with a mouth full of rocks on an empty stomach. I call this “sentence dieseling.” Dieseling is an automotive term when you turn off your carbureted car, and the engine continues to run.
The comma should allow the reader to breathe and be used with moderation. The period separates thoughts and gives the mind a break. Normal words help get the point across quickly. That same psychology teacher that tried to flunk me loved to use the word “Cynosure.” (A focal point of admiration.) Is it a valid word? Yes. Did anybody in the class know what the heck it meant? Of course not. Was it an attempt to make that teacher seem intelligent or important? Defiantly!
Where does that leave me? I have an overall goal in my writing regarding proper grammar. First, I check my work carefully for proper (my own rules) grammar, and I do my best to make it consistent. Then, I send my books to an editor, and they clean my mess. Then, I review their changes and try to duplicate their knowledge in my subsequent works.
I wish there was a better solution. The real problem is that grammar does not have established rules. Everybody (including editors and software grammar checkers) is in the same boat. In other languages, a board or governing body is set up to establish universal rules.
The English language has no governing body. However, in 1906, the Simplified Spelling Board reformed the spelling of the English language, making it simpler and easier to learn and eliminating many inconsistencies. The board operated until 1920, (the year after the death of its founding benefactor, Andrew Carnegie who had come to criticize the progress and approach of the organization).
I believe we should resurrect the Simplified Spelling Board or something like it. Perhaps a Wikipedia version of The Chicago Manual of Style. Let’s pretend this is true. They met, discussed the “?!” issue, and determined that the correct way to emphasize a question is “?!” This rule would then get incorporated into textbooks and software grammar checkers. The results will be that the grammar monsters have less to complain about, and all writing will be consistent.
I dislike is ranting about a problem without a solution. So I call on my blog readers to rise up and enact a grammar governing board and then accept their sage words of wisdom.
You’re the best -Bill
October, 24, 2017 Updated March 04, 2023
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