What are words for?

Calvin: I like to verb words.
Hobbes: What?
Calvin: I take nouns and adjectives and use them as verbs. Remember when “access” was a thing? Now, it’s something you do. It got verbed. Verbing weirds language.
Hobbes: Maybe we can eventually make language a complete impediment to understanding.

Go, Dog. Go! v. Paris Hilton
Both Mama’s and my family have been overwhelmingly supportive of us since 3B was born. I have always known that my family loved me in spite of my many foibles, such as my inability to call anyone on a regular basis, which I will heretofore chalk up to my desire to avoid addiction to the Amish gateway drug (thanks for the explanation, Anthromama).

They’ve been calling, sending gifts, and forwarding all manner of helpful information, such as this CNN article on the joy of reading that Brother #2 forwarded, which includes this passage:

Babies and toddlers
What they love about books:

  • Open. Shut. Open. Shut. Open. Shut.
  • Bright colors
  • Cool pictures

I don’t know why they limit it to babies and toddlers. This is a perfect description of what appeals to most adults about music videos, if you replace “Open. Shut.” with “Quick cut.” Of course, there are probably more big words in Go, Dog. Go! than in Paris Hilton’s new video, so I guess we’ll stick with books over MTV for building 3B’s literacy. No, I’m not linking to her video. Google it yourself, you knob.

Besides, if it’s smut that you’re after, why don’t you try something a little more rewarding than watching a vapid heiress whining and preening her way through rehashed dance tracks. Try some hot library smut.

That’s me in the corner, losing my syntax
It’s a terrible confession for me to make, since I’m an editor and all, but I never really paid much attention when they were teaching grammar in school. Sure, I liked reading, and this blog is evidence of my continuing affection for writing, but grammar? Teaching me about progressive tenses would just make me progressively more tense.

I figure that the goal of grammar rules is to generate clear communication in writing, which they are generally successful at. But somewhere along the way, that intention got lost, and making and enforcing the rules became and end to itself. This led to quirks of individual grammarians like Robert Lowth (see the section on ending a sentence with a preposition) becoming codified into rules that go against the normal flow of language and do nothing to advance the goal of clear written communication.

Also, grammarians devised their own jargon, which became a language within a language that any student had to master to properly apply any of the rules being handed down to them. As an editor, rather than starting with an enforcement mindset, which tends to lead to an “I’m right. You’re wrong.” mindset that’s generally irritating in English teachers and editors, I start with two basic questions: Do I understand this? Do I think that the target audience will understand it? After I have edited the piece, if necessary, so that I can answer both questions in the affirmative, I find that I’ve generally fixed any grammar rule transgressions as well.

Sometimes, however, there is writing that can only be sorted out by applying the rules of grammar. Fortunately, for those of us too dense to memorize what an intransitive verb is (it must not be proper to say “objectless verb”), there are voices of reason who speak plainly about clear communication, Strunk and White being the classic example. I’ve now found a blog for us: the Language Log, where they parse soup can slogans, and explain how a linguist helped DeLorean get acquitted, and even muse on the words in the recent Snickers ad campaign.

Meddling with the theodolites
And then there are those grammarians who do communicate clearly, who can explain grammar to slobs like me in a way that I can understand–using small words helps–and who take the time to offer their skills to the masses for free, so that it’s clear to everyone who reads their edited version why that blockhead shouldn’t have let that woman in there to meddle with the theodolites.

What was that blockhead thinking?

[UPDATE: Speaking of blockheads, this one fixed the typo that s@bd pointed out. Proof that everyone, even editors–perhaps especially editors–needs an editor.]

  • Shucks, Papa B…you keep linking like that and Anthromama might have more than 2-3 loyal readers.

    That was some truly hot Euro library smut. I am abashed to say that after more than a year here, I have yet to set foot in the NYC Public Library. So far I’ve settled for the local, the charmingly named Finkelstein Library.

    On grammar, I think learning the jargon and deeply fetishized rules is more an exercise in a way of thinking than something useful in everday life. I’m a copy editor and I couldn’t talk about tenses and part of speech in detail, but I can make writing more clear and concise.

    Ever wonder how little kids learn to speak without taking grammar classes? My 2-year-old can use sentences with conjunctions, prepositions and adverbial phrases, but she couldn’t explain how or why.

  • You’re an editor?!

    DANG!! Now I have to try to make more sense.

    Also, “I start with to basic questions”. (I’m a complete BITCH, I know.)

  • Thank you for this post. I have long believed that what is most important is that people understand what I am saying, not the specific rules of grammar. I have never been able to diagram a sentence or tell you why something does or does not work. It just does not sound right. ZD might make fun of how stream of conscience I right in comments, but he always asks me to proofread for him.

  • You must read ‘Eat, shoots and leaves’. Great book about grammar. Funny too, which is something grammar often isn’t.

    (By the way, the title refers to a joke about Pandas and a misprinted leaflet about them. Try reading it without the comma… brilliant, right?)

  • Ah, grammar. Am grammar freak, even when abusing it.

    Nouns as verbs is one of my greatest pet-peeves. Hate being peeved (peeve can be both noun and verb, FYI)

  • I’m with HBM. I’ve a grammar freak too. I can’t help myself. It’s like a disease!