The Grammar Nazi Disagrees

I am… sadly… the victim of public school. Most (nearly all) of what I learned in my youth was despite their best attempts. Given sufficient resources, a public school can and will turn everything it touches into a shambling mound of stupidity.

However, a few good teachers got through the system. That minuscule tortured minority actually taught. One, while dragging my teenage brain through Sophocles when I was more attuned to REO Speedwagon, said something I’ll never forget. This not my Curmudgeonly Gem of insight; it is hers. Even now it rings as true as it is cruel:

“You will find that there are people who can write and there are ones who can’t. In general the ones who can’t write don’t matter.”

Ouch! It was enough to motivate me to finish Oedipus and write a bang up report to redeem myself. (It wasn’t so bad, there was sex and violence and what more does a story need?) Incidentally you can read Oedipus for free.

The End Of Writing (Hat tip to Maggie’s Farm) pointed me to Why Kim Kardashian Can’t Write Good. You can read the whole thing but the main point (using Ms. Kardashian as an example) is as follows:

“Writing is language in its Sunday best, and in a world where writing was is as central to communication as it used to be, as even a modestly educated person you could barely escape high language.

Those days are over for good. What Kardashian’s tweet reveals is not someone strangely neglectful. She didn’t go to college, and her high school education, as a modern one in today’s increasingly oral society (see below) unsurprisingly did not teach her the finer points of how to write a sentence.”

So, Ms. Kardashian can’t write. So what? I suspect she can’t change a tire or fit a non-linear model either. On the other hand, I look like a sack of shit and she has ta ta’s that pay the rent. To each his or her own.

The author can’t stop there. One doesn’t sell ad space by writing “the hot chick is semi literate and I’m cool with that”. Instead he posits that we, the human race writ large, should shift into a post literate world. Where have I heard this before? Oh yeah, everywhere all the time. It was wrong then and it’s wrong now.

To bolster his argument he refers to some fellow named Cornel West:

“a revered public intellectual who has not written academic books in a quarter-century now, does not write published refereed academic articles, and overall does not like writing and does as little of it as possible.”

I’d never heard of Cornel West. I checked everyone’s favorite unverified (but written) information source (Wikipedia). Apparently he’s a public intellectual and also a Democratic Socialist. (The photo on wikipedia also indicates the guy can rock an afro. It seems a shame to leave that out because it’s epic.)

Frankly I have my doubts about “public intellectual” being synonymous with “wicked smart”. In my personal experience many of the smartest people out there are “privately intellectual”. Is it not smart (or perhaps wise) to display sufficient mental acuity to get through the day while keeping plenty in reserve for cleaning me out at the poker table? I’m convinced there are a lot more brain cells at work quietly doing mental jobs (brain surgeon, transmission repair, etc…) than are loudly and publicly churning out “journalism”.

I’m nothing if not charitable. If he couldn’t find an example of a turbocharged mind that doesn’t like to write but yet still impresses me, I’m going to assume one exists. Again, so what? There’s a genius out there that doesn’t spin verbiage like Mark Twain. Who cares.

“the reception of West is also a symptom of an increasingly oral society.”

Really? Again? This is where it always goes. Premise, example, then a conclusion which always comes out as “toss many years of historical precedent and go with the hip new thing”.

“I submit that a public intellectual’s main work could, with all dignity, consist of a series of 15-minute podcasts released every month or so—kind of like Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats…”

No. No they can’t. Podcasts are ephemeral. Once they’re done, nobody cares. I looked up Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats (they are on the internet) but I had no desire to actually listen to them. Why would I? In another hundred years nobody but academics and dweebs will even consider listening to someone mouthing words into a microphone from the distant past.

If only there was some sort of written versus podcast comparison. Maybe another Roosevelt that, unlike FDR, wrote. What’s this? Theodore Roosevelt, who left office in 1909 (some 106 years ago and 36 years before FDR) has an Author’s Page On Amazon? Color me shocked! He’s got 19 titles. I’ve purchased and subsequently read a few of them myself. Meanwhile the semi-literate Roosevelt has a smattering of books of what other people thought of him.

So there you have it. The Roosevelt who could write is selling books right friggin now and the Roosevelt who couldn’t left behind some “podcasts” that nobody cares about. This, mind you, is the example I’m supposed to emulate in our “increasingly oral society”. Nope!

Words last; at least the very good and very lucky ones. As a literate person I’ve read about slaying beasts 1,040 years ago, creepy Greek sex 2,456 years ago, and an elk hunt 130 years ago. How long do you think a podcast will maintain an audience? Just to tie what’s hanging around right now on my bookshelves (or Kindle) you’d have to expect a podcast will still be relevant in the year 3,056 (Beowulf), or 4,471 (Sophocles), or even merely last to 2,145 (Roosevelt).

I’ll stick to the little scribbled code we call letters. Of course the author isn’t done yet:

“might we stop pretending that ordinary people need to be able to write on a level higher than functional?”

Why? Because it’s a good and noble thing to be a dumbass? Perhaps folks don’t need to be able to write on a high level, but we might aspire to it (excepting of course Social Democrats, Fireside Chatters, and the chick with the ta tas). It is wrong to set the bar low because jumping over is hard.

“What I wonder is whether everyone needs to be taught how to write an essay.”

Yes. Yes they do. You can stop wondering now.

“It may be time to understand that the writing culture of an earlier era was a matter of fashion…”

Indeed. A fashion that started around the time of the Greeks (or if you wish pick your favored precursor civilization) and continues to this day.

“Nor is it true that one can only make a serious point with big words and long sentences, a view that implies that most humans on earth are incapable of higher reasoning.”

The shit is getting deep now. Who among us thinks serious points require big words and long sentences? Mark Twain wrote “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” Clever eh? If verbosity meant excellent writing, people wouldn’t make fun of Dilbert’s boss and his bureaucratic gibberish.

Want an example that hits harder? Hemingway wrote “[t]he world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places”. Serious point, words so small I can worm them into a Scrabble game.

Nor am I convinced that most humans on earth are capable of higher reasoning. Have you been to a WalMart lately? Or perhaps they’re capable but they’re busy reading Ms. Kardashian’s Tweets?

“Note that an oral approach to composition lends itself to precisely the qualities so fashionable in today’s education schools.”

I’m not sure it’s wise to appeal to me by referring to what’s fashionable in today’s education schools. As far as I can tell, “what’s fashionable” involves churning out great herds of drooling Marxists wingnuts (and an occasional good teacher that somehow slips through the mesh). They, in turn create another generation of people who can barely think but have impressive student loans. Some of them go on to suggest that I should lower myself to Ms. Kardashian’s level.

“Meanwhile, what are the chances that teaching of composition is going to improve?”

Based on what is fashionable in education schools? None!

“One approach to that is to gnash one’s teeth. Another, however, is to accept that the prevalence of high-level writing in the old days was a temporary condition. Humans have existed for 150,000 years while writing only came along about 6,500 years ago.”

Well there’s that. There’s no doubt that civilization is very hard. Then again civilization is a pretty excellent idea. Humans lived in mud huts and shit in the weeds for 150,000 years too. Shall we advocate for that as well? “Due to Ms. Kardashian’s literacy levels I think it only natural we all bash a rabbit with a stick for dinner and then crap on the lawn”.

“Kim Kardashian and Cornel West, of all people, are symptoms of the same thing—and not necessarily a bad one.”

Wrong! They’re merely people. One who is said to be a brainiac who dislikes writing and the other who… Well I’m not really sure what Ms. Kardashian does (other than sport a decent rack).

The symptom is the idea that they are somehow beacons in the darkness and we, like trusting sub-literate sheep, should follow and that is a very bad thing. There’s no cure for this particular stupid idea. Every generation comes up with it and they always think it’s a great and original concept: “Some 6,500 years of literacy led from planting wheat with a stick to a 78 year life expectancy. However literacy is hard and cool people get by without it. We should all be  like the cool people.”

My old teacher (one of the few who taught) once said; “read the damn book and for God’s sake try to think.” I read the damn books and tried to think. It worked. You won’t find me doing podcasts about Ms. Kardashian and how we should all emulate her.

About Adaptive Curmudgeon

I will neither confirm nor deny that I actually exist.
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28 Responses to The Grammar Nazi Disagrees

  1. Steve_in_CA says:

    Bravo! Your muse really shines through after a couple of 1492s [1792] under your belt.

  2. Canisursus says:

    I am not afraid to admit it, I am an office drone. My job is to take the jibberish that comes in as written complaints and respond to them in a coherent letter. I see how the “Oral” culture has led to the meek acceptence of ignorance. One important thing that seems to have escaped the authors notice is the impact of correct writing structure influences their oral discourse. Sentence structure alone helps lay the foundation of rational arguement beyond “you are wrong” and I am right and you are a (racist/conservitive/religous/gun fetishist/flavor of the day insult). People like this are why we can’t have nice things…

  3. Alien says:

    RE: Mark Twain’s comment on verbosity, IIRC it was Winston Churchill who said something along the lines of “were I requested to give a two hour speech I could begin speaking now; to deliver a 20 minute speech would require at least two weeks of preparation.”

    I’m not a Grammar Nazi but I fully understand the compulsion, and do ingage in it randomly. As Dave Barry once wrote of the substantially illiterate, “an apostrophe means there’s an “S” coming.” I blame such abject shortcomings on lack of exposure to writing in general, and good writing in particular, for that particular failing, as well as the myriad textual abominations one encounters daily.

    It requires a certain type of mentality to be good at popular contemporary speech, meaning “talking in sound bites.” Several years ago I engaged in a discussion with Roger L. Simon of Pajamas Media fame in which I pointed out that I do not listen to podcasts or online videos, but text was my friend. My reasoning was that not only do I read faster than the standard rate of speech, the written word indicates, usually, more thoughtfulness and dedication to accuracy of expression. As a noted exception, blog comments in particular seem thoroughly corrupted by automated correction mechanisms, and abetted by lack of concern among those who inflict them upon the rest of us.

    A question, sir: Who, or what, is this “Kardashian” of which you speak? And, I am aware that west is a compass direction, one of the four primary points; for what purpose do you capitalize it, and adjectivize it with a reference to the dogwood tree?

    • “As Dave Barry once wrote of the substantially illiterate, “an apostrophe means there’s an “S” coming.” I blame such abject shortcomings on lack of exposure to writing in general, and good writing in particular…”

      Dave Barry is, of course, brilliant and I love the quote. In practice, the apostrophe is used incorrectly almost as often as it is used well. We’ve all seen it.

      However, I don’t blame everything on the subliterate. English is a mess. It’s a language which has been run through six blenders and a woodchipper before being set on fire, drowned in a lake, fished out, and mercilessly hammered to death by PC cops who tried to implement Newspeak. Whatever logical constructs English originally had are toast.

      I don’t mind. I suspect it is because English is messy, unhinged, illogical, and inconsistent that we can have so much fun with it. I harbor the suspicion that it would be hard to write so colorfully in Finnish, Japanese, Swahili, or whatever. (Full disclosure: I could be wrong. My foreign languages are weak and all I know is a tiny smattering of Portugese and Japanese. Europeans can sniff at my limitations as a monolingual American but they’ll have to do it while trying to find a French spelling for “internet”.)

      So the whole apostrophe thing is something of a mishmash and fewer “get it” every generation? Maybe it’s stupid now and we’ll find a resolution in another hundred years? In the meantime we should muddle through and smile. Trying to turn our language into voicemail is for wimps.

      Also, lets face it, nobody knows whether they’re using a semicolon properly. The best I can do is notice when it’s wrong.

      • aczarnowski says:

        Larry Wall, a linguist by training, created the Perl programing language and made a statement which has always stuck with me:

        This is important, and a little hard to understand. English is useful because it’s a mess. Since English is a mess, it maps well onto the problem space, which is also a mess, which we call reality.

  4. Al_in_Ottawa says:

    From a memo I received today
    “….address the need to bring together the cross cutting functions that support the oversight functions and ensures appropriate horizontality and more effective policy, planning and support across all modes.”

    Animals communicate audibly through birdsong, whalesong, grunts, howls etc and primates make and use simple tools. Writing is an ability that only humans can develop, we should nurture that skill at every opportunity.

    • cspschofield says:

      When my Lady and I were part of a Tech Startup (no, it didn’t fly), my job was Tech Editor, because I was the one who could say to a jargon addled techie “Yes, this block of text has all the latest and best buzzwords, but to qualify as a paragraph it needs to have a noun and sone verbs. Pick some.”

  5. Anonymous says:

    Regarding your last paragraph about Cornus and west: showoff.

  6. Mark Matis says:

    Mr. McWhorter is merely expounding the views of hive-dwellers across the entire Western world. If one were to bother to poll residents of every hive therein, one would find they overwhelmingly agree with his saintly pontification. They also LUVS them some Big Government. And are the core constituency of the foul swill running Western governments today. As long as they continue to exist in numbers anywhere NEAR their current population, there is only one direction that Western Civilization is going to head.

  7. cspschofield says:

    “Frankly I have my doubts about “public intellectual” being synonymous with “wicked smart”.”

    Historically “Public Intellectual” has tended to mean “Hasn’t gotten caught at his film-flam. Yet.”. The exceptions have been posthumously promoted to Scholar, Historian, Humorist, or Poet, depending on style.

    Anyone still professing Socialism seems likely to emerge, eventually, as a “Public Dolt”. As for Kardishan and her ilk, there have always been spectacular women of dubious morals and the public has often repeated their so-called witticisms. Some of their utterances had merit, and have lasted (“Calvin Coolidge is dead” “How can they tell?”). Most are forgotten, as most of all popular culture is forgotten. We don’t recall much of what Marilyn Monroe said or wrote, though she was actually a decent actress. Kardishan’s utterances seem eminently forgettable, and compared to some of the really great beauties (Wendy Hiller, Katherine Hepburn) so is her face and figure. A passing whore, largely talent-proof, as important as last year’s Playboy Bunny.

    Schofield’s Law of Popular Culture; “We remember the popular culture of eras past so fondly because, mercifully, we don’t actually remember all that much of it.”

  8. Phil B says:

    Ah, yes. Using words with PRECISION to describe exactly what you mean, to unambiguously convey a concept without recourse to “U no wot is iz sayin’ dude?” is nowadays as rare as a First World War survivor. WW1 survivors do exist but are a dying breed. Similarly, those few people that can use words and construct sentences are a rare animal and, I would argue, increasingly irrelevant because the intended audience is incapable of actually understanding the actual words used or the concept being expressed.

    Incidentally, as I know you are … errr . how can I put this? Extremely BUDGET MINDED, you need to check out where you can download (to kindle if necessary) many books that are now out of copyright including a lot of Teddy Roosevelt’s writings. Well worthwhile, too. But there again, Teddy was educated in a world where the written word was an admired and an essential tool of communication.

    All of which is to say, I agree with you! >};o)

  9. MaxDamage says:

    I scored five originals by Teddy Roosevelt and they are, to my mind, second only to my six volumes from Winston Churchill as the best prose to be found in my library. I have an extensive library, some 2300 volumes at last count. If you can find them, get them. They were men of their times and their ideas are often at odds with what we have come to expect, but even if you disagree with their thoughts you will marvel at how well they are expressed.

    – Max

  10. Howard says:

    One of the famous greek philosophers I think maybe Sochrates or Aristotle is quoted as learning to read and write detracts from the ability to think. Scribes can write it down. Admittedly important thoughts have been passed down to the modern era because of good writing. People these days don’t have the patients to carry on the aural traditions that bards and story tellers used to memorize.
    The destruction of good writing is greatly increased by all the abreviations used in text messaging. I gather that many young people will sit at the same table and text each other in stead of talking. So will they eventually end up grunting back and forth if an EMP tales down their smart phones.
    Pardon my questionable spelling I should have lived in Chauser’s age.

  11. mynameiseli says:

    I follow this blog because the author writes well, and with a sense of humor that I love. I am not well educated, and seek those authors who know and understand how to use the American language. AC and Sarah Hoyt are my current favorites.
    One day many years ago I was silently agreeing to a popular radio talk show host bemoaning the diminishing standards of language when I realized that he was advocating a standard based on a specific issue of an Oxford publication. And, unbidden, the question crossed my mind “Why that one?”. Is it not true, were you to open it, that you would find printed there the etymology of each word, and it would show how the word arose from one tongue, morphed into another, and maybe another, until here, this day, as of this printing, as agreed to by the committee raised to publish it, this is its spelling, its meaning, and its common and uncommon uses?
    But that point is to where, when, or how to use a word and its punctuation.
    There is no reason for illiteracy, except that I imagine the same folk that were illiterate 500 years ago are the same folk who are illiterate today. Effective communication requires literacy. Or icons. Or guns?

  12. Joel says:

    I have heard of Cornel West. Truly, I’d rather emulate Kim Kardashian. And I don’t know what she does, either.

    But you seriously found an article saying we should all stop worrying about ‘big words and long sentences’ because Cornel West and Kim Kardashian don’t write good, and if that doesn’t prove every sort of stupidity resides somewhere on the Internet I don’t know what ever could.

    And you had the patience to read and fisk it, too. I’m impressed.

    • I don’t know if it was wise to waste time fisking some yoyo’s idea that culture “break free” from big words and long sentences. However, the alternative was upgrading some pig fence and I hate messing with fences.

  13. Wolfman says:

    One must bear in mind the old adage, ‘Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.’ After reading that bit of post-intellectual drivel, my only solace is that the people he is listing as influential thinkers- his public intellectuals, as it were- are people whose ideas I fervently hope can soon fall by the wayside. After people have forgotten what mindless foolishness they contrived to pass off as wisdom, we will be left with maybe a few less books, but most likely a higher class of them than if those people were writers, not talkers. Imagine how much different life would look if Karl Marx had tried to distribute his manifesto by gramophone.

    • I noticed that he had two examples that seemed a bit “constrained”. Out of some seven billion humans he came up with Kim Kardashian and a dead president that is hardly my favorite. (Here’s a quiz, how many presidents had to die in order to pry them out of office and were immediately followed with a constitutional amendment to make sure it never happened again?) His quest to surpass big words and long sentences might be something of an echo chamber.

      And yes, Marx with a gramophone instead of pen and ink would have saved us all a lot of grief.

      • Mark Matis says:

        Well Chico, Harpo, Groucho, Gummo, and Zeppo were rather good. Although I don’t remember them doing anything significant with a gramophone…

  14. RKflorida says:

    Your closing statement reminds me of a statement made by a great mind of the past that applies to me: “I tried to think but nuttin’ happened!” Curly…..

  15. Pingback: He Should Have Read A Book | The Adaptive Curmudgeon's Blog

  16. Paul Bonneau says:

    I am of two minds about this.

    Some time ago I decided to take a writing class at the community college. During the class we got to write, and then critique each other’s writing on various subjects. I came to understand that not only could my classmates not write, but they could hardly reason. It made me very sad and ashamed for them. Twelve years of their life wasted in school, for *that*? But I have since understood that schooling is not for learning.

    On the other hand, I wrote this:

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