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:

Dear Muffin,

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."


Amie said...

An anonymous commenter corrected my grammar a couple months ago. After they corrected it they added that they were surprised to see bad grammar on my blog. My first thought was so you can't let one mistake slide then??

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Hmmm. Methinks I have a troll.

Firstly, I have no idea who this Muffin person is and she/he does not have a user profile available.

Secondly, I stand by my post. It is certainly not intended to start a 'shouting match' nor have there been any such on this blog. Rather, it was intended to point out that the usage was actually correct in standard American English and to give some other information about how I see usage and writing. I was using it as a jumping off point on my blog in order to express my opinion about the foolishness of the homeschool grammar wars (see below), and also about writing with the use of the local and colloquial voice. I was not hurt by comment, on the contrary, I used it. I even called attention to it.

Thirdly, perhaps the Muffin person is not aware of the ongoing "Grammar Wars" that seem to plague the homeschooling boards and blogosphere. The endless quibbling over spelling and grammar of the "she wrote this, and she calls herself a homeschooler" variety does annoy me. As I pointed out at the end, I do not wish to quibble over grammar here or on other blogs because I am aware that I make numerous mistakes on my blog, and also because it tends to distract from the ideas being expressed. And frankly, I find such quibbling extremely bo...(oops I gave up the "b" word for the duration)...uninteresting.

I am not impressed by someone who makes an anonymous grammar correction, without the courtesy of citing the offending phrase, and then claims to be hurt by the response, and makes mean-spirited personal comments, still without identifying him-or-herself. To me, that seems rather cowardly.

This gets me back to the "troll" issue. It looks like this Muffin was trolling for a response, and getting one, felt hurt and made a nasty personal attack. That's got "troll" written all over it.

I have no problems when people disagreeing with me on matters of substance, and I have never removed such comments although I once took out some offensive language (the commentor was actually quoting a newspaper story but I did not want the language on my blog). Here, I am removing the personal nastiness, but I will leave the rest of the "Muffin" comments stand.

And, again, I want to assure those whose blogs I regularly read that I am certainly not looking for their mistakes, and if I notice them--a challenge for me on the computer--I do not take them very seriously.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Here is the edited version of Muffin's second comment, edited by me to remove a personal attack:

Muffin said...
Well, first let me apologize. I of course had no intention of offending or hurting you. I thought, and still think, that it's a humorous, witty, and innocuous "poem" that makes a point without being hurtful. I also thought, and still think, except for this recent post, that your blog is one of the most intelligent, interesting, and reasoned ones I've come across.

But I am hurt by your response, your diatribe... You sure got this one wrong.

You needn't bother to respond or start...(a) shouting match; I have removed your blog from my favorites and shan't upset you again...

March 10, 2008 6:10:00 PM MDT

To which I say: If you ever do return here, have the courtesy to identify yourself.

jugglingpaynes said...

I think you have made some excellent points here. I happen to love linguistics and I am not bothered in the least by the various writing styles of blogs I read. I think it is a question of "not seeing the forest for the trees." There are so many wonderful articles out in the blogosphere, but if I were to pick apart their grammar to read them, I would not enjoy them as much.
Peace and Laughter!

Cami said...

Hi Elisheva, just wanted to let you know I've tagged you for an easy meme if you're interested. No worries if it's not your thing though! BTW, great response. If everyone had to attend to their grammar, the world would be a much quieter place!

Mrs. C said...

I hate when people correct my grammer. Or me spelling.

Good grief.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...


I'll head over to your blog for the meme, but probably not before the end of the week. I have a test, a paper and I have been spending some time trying to understand this California ruling, too.

Mrs. C--I like the picture of you and the baby.
I am not sure what you are trying to say in your comment. Again, I do not generally correct people in their posts or comments for the reasons outlined above. Comments are even more difficult because once published, they cannot be easily corrected. So if you got a correction, it did not come from me. :) I am sorry if it happened on this blog.

To all of the commentors: There is still another issue with publishing on the Web. Often, we think we are being clear in what we mean, but because we are not in actual contact with the people we are talking to, we miscommunicate. Emoticons can help, but they do not replace eye-contact and tone. We sometimes do not know the contexts for what people have written, or the time that they had to spend.
I believe that this may have happened with my interlocutor, Muffin,and that s/he did not know that s/he was stumbling into some homeschooling grammar wars. I do not believe that I said anything mean to this person, however, my response appears to have caught a nerve. However, I was trying to convey a lot of information, which was clearly taken wrongly.

I also have several readers who comment here frequently that have dyslexia, and I do not want them to be afraid to comment here. Since I write about raising and educating a child with a learning disability and autism, I also expect that some people coming here have such disabilities. Please take that into account when you read what people are saying.
In the old days, when addressing readers, writers would often begin: "Gentle reader..."
Maybe we ought to reinstate this old-fashioned phrase as a reminder to be gentle with imperfections of the writer. And on the web, where publication is instantaneous and unedited, perhaps we ought to be gentle writers, too.

Mamacita (Mamacita) said...

I'm a long-time lurker, but I just had to peek out from behind my tree (a really big tree, and if you saw me, you'd understand why it has to be a BIG tree) to tell you that I find your writing to be lovely in every way. I am a complete and total grammar nazi (and obviously impervious to the pull of Political Correctness) (but at least I don't capitalize it) and I know that in order to break the rules, one must first know the rules, and it is obvious that you know the rules.

Since you do, go ahead and USE them! Bend them; twist them; step on them; make them scream; throw them across the room; make them do your bidding.

That's what we get to do when we KNOW HOW!

Thank you for this post. I enjoyed it tremendously.

Oh, and don't worry about the trolls. That just means you're at the popular table.