31 May 2011

Grammar Nazi

I really, really hate giving presentations. I get horrible anxiety, blush until my cheeks nearly light on fire, and have serious problems looking anywhere except my feet. But this time was an exception.

When the signup sheet had gone around my copyediting class two weeks before, I nearly slammed my fist down on the paper from being so excited. Each person in the class needed to choose one idiom that is usually used incorrectly and research the history and etymology of the phrase, determining how it is supposed to be used. And my number one pet peeve, grammatical or otherwise, was staring up at me on the page.

I took my place at the front of the classroom, all eyes on me. I picked up the black dry erase marker and carefully wrote two sentences across the board, one on top of the other:

            Could care less

            Couldn’t care less

I pointed to the first sentence. “Who thinks this is correct?” Not a single person raised a hand. I breathed a sigh of appreciation. These were my people. When I pointed to the second sentence, every hand went up. I went on to explain how exactly the idiom had been skewed over the years, and how the first phrasing was now used so frequently that it could be considered correct just because people accept it.

My words were met with horrified eyes and open mouths. How could such an obvious mistake really be deemed correct? And just because people usually say it that way? It’s still wrong, right?

My boyfriend, a stand-up comic, has a joke about me. It starts with, “I love my girlfriend, but…she’s kind of a grammar nazi.” He stole the term from me. I’m self-proclaimed. I don’t hold back if he makes a grammar mistake or pronounces a word wrong. He’s probably the only person I feel comfortable doing this to, because I know he won’t get angry about it. He’ll just put me into his act if I correct the spelling in his text messages or keep saying “What?” until he stops pronouncing “escape” like it has an x in it.

My first reading selection for 2011 was The Great Typo Hunt by Jeff Deck and Benjamin D. Herson. I spied it in the writing reference section at work (my most frequented browsing spot), and it seemed right up my alley. It’s a nonfiction book about two friends who go across the country armed with markers and white-out, correcting typos. It seemed somewhat fantastical—imagine being able to fix those errors that we see every day—on signs, billboards, flyers, everywhere—those errors that so often go unnoticed. I’m far too introverted to do the sort of things that these typo eradicators were able to do, but I started noticing these everyday errors more and more. I even fixed a few handwritten notes that I found at work—most noticeably drawing a thick blue line through a misplaced letter e in the word “recycling” on the cardboard box where we threw plastic bottles left by customers.

I take my grammar knowledge seriously. I was actually offended when my professor for Early British Novel told the class, “Don’t use semicolons. You don’t know how to use them. So just don’t do it.” I was so offended that I put one in the first paragraph of my first paper. Of course she had no problem with it—it was used correctly. The semicolon and I have had a rough relationship. I hated it in the beginning. A comma and a period—how pretentious is that? But as time went by, I came to realize the beauty of it. Two complete sentences, able to stand on their own, are linked together. They aren’t really separate at all. Semicolons bond sentences together; they bring the love into writing, like a matchmaker for sentences.

I also have an intense love affair with ellipses. Particularly in dialogue. Why say “he paused” when you can have a perfectly crafted, real pause within the quotation marks? Dot. Dot. Dot. Your eyes slow down as you follow the line; you pause with the speaker. And then the words pick up again; your eyes lift up and see the dialogue. Three perfect dots.

My tragic flaw, however, must be fragments. I love them. I believe that a well-placed fragment can make you think. One or two words have the ability to convey so much more emotion than a full sentence. I sometimes follow the belief that writing should reflect the way we think and speak. And every sentence uttered isn’t a perfect one. Sometimes we only say a few words. Sometimes we start a sentence with a conjunction or end it with a preposition. But it has to make sense; it has to feel natural.

So maybe I’m not as strict about grammar as I always thought. I’ll make exceptions if it fits in with the voice of whatever I’m writing. That doesn’t stop me from noticing errors. Just the other day I found myself staring at the menu at a seafood restaurant whose appetizer list boasted their onion rings—a whole “basket full.” I cringed but resisted pulling out a pen from my purse.

The onion rings were delicious.

1 comment:

  1. Love your passion for the written word!
    Thanks to people like you I have become more disciplined as far as grammar goes.
    I like the writing to be clean save for the dialogue, then, I think this comes from my screenwriting days, all bets are off. Lately writing in first person its an all-grammar-bets-are-off buffet since the entire novel is in a voice. Still, a coherent foundation of grammar builds a reader's trust.
    From being a copywriter/graphic designer, I find quotes and underlines are used more to indicate bolder fonts or italics and it just trickles down into print without being tended to.
    By the way, the onions were yummy but was the basket full or "full" and if it was full are you just being an optimist??