Monday, March 10, 2008
The Attack of the Grammar Yekke
I received a comment on my last blog entry, Yikes! It's Adar II! from a grammar Yekke* (who uses the handle Muffin) that annoyed me.
The entry itself was quite long, and I realize that the nature of the discussion was probably not of interest to a lot of people, although I wanted to post it for reasons of my own. However, there were many ideas in the piece that could well be discussed and argued that would have been interesting and enlightening. However, this comment was a priggish little poem about a specific English usage that must have offended the commentor.
*Yekke: What the Israeli Sabra calls the German Jew. They are so concerned with 'properness' that they wear a jacket even when it's 100 degrees in the shade. You know the type.
I suppose that sooner or later it was bound to happen. What I wonder is this: Do these people go trolling the blogosphere looking for what they consider to be "incorrect usage" with their copies of Eats, Shoots, and Leaves in hand? What is really interesting about this particular objection is that the usage in question is correct or not depending upon whether the writer is using standard American expression or the Queen's English.
I wrote a reply to the comment, but did not end up posting it in those comments. I thought rather to blog it as a separate entry, because I think it would be useful for all of the grammar prigs out there to think about.
The comment was about the correct use of "who" and "whom," and since the commentor did not actually quote the offending phrase, I am making an assumption--always a dangerous proposition--about what that phrase might be.
The piece I posted was actually the written format of a talk I gave in an informal setting. At several places in the talk, I used the phrase, "Who do they think they're kidding?!" I am guessing that this bothered the Grammar Yekke so much that she was unable to actually digest the content and the meaning of the talk. At least, I choose to believe this more charitable interpretation above other less charitable ones.
Here is my response:
Perhaps you are from England, in which case, you can ignore everything I write below, and go on believing that you are correct. I am assuming that you object to my use of the word "who" in the question "Who do they think they're kidding?" For standard American usage in the 21st century, the writer may choose to use either "who" or "whom" even though in English usage, "whom" is considered to be correct.
In the case to which you refer, I made my choices based primarily on the 'voice' I wanted to convey to my listeners--that's right, listeners--because my purpose for this piece was first that it be spoken in an informal setting. In this setting I wanted to project a colloquial and unaffected voice, as well as draw my listeners in to the rhythm of that phrase interspersed with the other content of the piece. Additionally, I knew my audience and thus was aware that the phrase would likely bring to their minds a line from a Simon and Garfunkel song. Yeah, we are that old!
And, yes, I am aware that 'yeah' is another one of those improper colloquialisms.
When considering how to phrase a piece of writing, I generally consider both the purpose of the writing and the audience for whom it is intended.
Digression: You should note here that I do know the correct usage of the word "whom." You should further note that the usage for the word "whom" is a remnant of the 'objective' or 'predicate' case, and I also know that cases are no longer normative in modern English. Rather, we use word order to convey the meaning that used to be expressed with cases. Cases are important in Latin and in Russian, and probably other languages, too.
Beyond the issue of voice, you may have noticed that the piece of writing to which you had this objection was also not very elegant in phrasing and had quite a few parenthetical statements. These would all sound better than they look, because eye contact, spoken phrasing, and tone of voice were used to convey meanings. Of course, when relying on the written word alone to communicate meaning, it is a good idea to minimize parenthetical statements, and to clean up the phrasing, so to make the writing more elegant. But, as I said, this was a talk and much meaning was communicated in other ways.
And now, I would like to go beyond your objection to my usage in order to provide you with some food for thought, if you choose to take a bite.
Language is arbitrary. This means that words, phrases, colloquialisms, and rules of grammar are in constant flux as people use language in everyday life to communicate with each other. As language is carried by people through space and time it evolves in order to remain useful to the people who are doing the communicating. Language in use is thus called 'living.' If it was not, it would not be very useful. One can only worship at the altar of perfect and unchanging usage for languages that are 'dead.' For example, the French Academy of Language has a bone to pick with Anglicisms and Americanisms coming into usage in French. One such is the Americanism "le weekend." But if the Academy is honest with itself, its members would have to say that they have not been terribly successful at getting rid of "le weekend'. "Le weekend" simply conveys a precise meaning that would require a more convoluted phrase to convey in "proper French." So ordinary French people continue to use it because they want to quickly convey meaning, and they really don't give a damn about keeping French frozen to some arbitrary level of 'purity' approved by the French 'language police.'
For American English it is even more so. That is because the language is so very polyglot, as Americans have adopted words and phrases from many different languages--and has even invented neologisms to convey meanings important to us in the here and now. Think about the following words: bayou, moccasin, patio, chaps, byte, blog. The first is Cajun (French-Canadian-Indian), the second is Indian, the third and fourth are from Spanish, and Spanish Indian, and the last two are computer-neologisms.
Finally, a confession and a warning.
First, the confession. I am a reasonable typist, but not a great one. When typing fast, I miss letters and sometimes mispell words due to "typos" (another neologism from the American Century. For shame! I am sure that Shakespeare never used that word). I am not a great proof-reader, especially when I am reading on a computer. I know this about myself: I am much more interested in the ideas I am trying to convey, and although I do strive to convey them clearly, I am not fussy about the use of perfect grammar. I will generally bow to local acceptable use and I do not get priggish about the fact that this often differs from the Queen's English. This is why I got a "pro" (another neologism--shame on me!) to type and edit my thesis. I will do the same for my dissertation.
Now the warning: Muffin, if the way I write bothers you so much that you cannot pay attention to the content, you might want to consider taking this blog off of your list. I would hate to raise your blood pressure on a daily basis. But if you are trolling for errors to demonstrate how superior you are with respect to grammar, then please, please do not come back here. I am simply not interested.
As the ubiquitous "they" say: "Never try to teach a pig to sing. It wears you out and annoys the pig!"
And for those whose blogs I read regularly, I may notice spelling errors and such, but I do not get huffy about them. It would be, to use an old colloquialism, "the pot calling the kettle black."