11.29.2018

Straitlaced

As an editor, one of the more frequent roles I play is: referee of words. That is because seemingly every writer abides by strict grammar rules they have learned somewhere along the way. Given the wide variety of these “laws,” which often contradict each other, I have come to the conclusion that we are all storm-tossed refugees exiled from the faraway land of grammar class. We rely on our memory of those miserable days of main stems and dangling participles, and as we all know, memory is a fickle guide.

In these matters, a law of inverse proportions is at work. The less one knows about grammar, the more dear he holds his “rules” to his heart. The worst offender in this regard is the commentator within a writing group. I can’t tell you how many absurd theories I have heard coming from this mysterious oracle.

The next step up in the annals of ignorance is the writing class. In this case, you have to feel sorry for the teachers. They usually are drawn from the ranks of related citizenry. For instance, the first class I took was taught by a supervisor of a Northeast bookstore chain. She would be forced during class to arbitrate between students, knowing hardly more than they did. My advice to writing instructors is to refrain from ever commenting on grammar rules. She should know that her fledgling authors’ difficulties lie far deeper than that.

The confusion extends, by the way, all the way inside the ranks of a publishing house. Editors are broken into two camps: acquisitions editors and copy editors. At one time, the former ascended the company ladder from the latter. Yet that ceased to be true many years ago. The plain fact is, the two groups of editors fight each other all the time.  Acquisitions editors always want their authors to be happy, and copy editors always want the prose to follow “house rules,” usually drawn from a guide such as the Chicago Manual of Style. So even at a level that can be considered elite, we are all floundering, struggling to reach the promised land. And what is the name of that sainted country? I would vote for: Common Sense.

Exercise: The most curious of these “laws” concerns the usage of the much-aligned verb “to be.” Although I would counsel that a passive verb be avoided most of the time, you have to consider what you are trying to accomplish. Right there, in the very last sentence I wrote, is the word “are.” Yet that is not passive usage. The word “are” is a helper for the verb “try” in the progressive tense. Progressive means that the action is still going on. You can see, from just this one example, why the imperfect referee sometimes wants to tear his hair out.

“Devotees of grammatical studies have not been distinguished for any very remarkable felicities of expression.”
—Amos Bronson Alcott

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine



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