I am a rule follower. I also like to know what the rules are, so I can break them. Stealthily, of course. But rules are what keeps society from going to hell in a handbasket, right? Traffic rules keep cars from running into each other or over pedestrians *Rome coff* . Please wash your hands before cooking my dinner, Mr. Guano Salesman. No hitting below the belt. No cutting in line.
Which is why I was particularly torqued off when I came across a blog post–in my WordPress reader no less–disdaining “Grammar purity” as a Ponzi scheme.* The essence of the argument is that “we” (English speaking-society) came up with the rules…. (ergo “we” can break them?) Dictionaries are arbiters of such rules, but looking in dictionaries shows that there is flexibility (ergo they aren’t really rules). Manuals such as The Chicago Manual of Style and the Associated Press Stylebook are “style guidelines, not grammar rules.”
These “rules” have shown impressive staying power. From cocktail parties to kitchen tables, these seemingly fascinating bits of grammar trivia have been repeated over and over, in some cases for centuries.
Too bad they’re not true.
Standard Written English is not just a Style Guide
Since I am such a lover of sport, I have been surprised this week by the lack of sensitivity displayed in multiple sport stories. No, I am not talking about the political correctness type of sensitivity but the fine tuning required for common sense and intelligence.
Les spectateurs de bicyclette sont stupides
Consider, for example, the Tour de France. I have one friend who is an avid follower of the event, who shrugs at basketball and disdains football, but whose eyes lit up last week describing the day when the riders went over massive amounts of cobblestones. Perusing last night’s updates with my friend in mind, imagine my surprise at googling “Tour de France” and seeing that the top suggested pairing included “tear gas.”
My mom would often quote: How do I know what I mean until I see what I say? when we talked about writing around the dinner table. Which we did sometimes, oddball family that we were. That expression immediately came to mind when the lovely Mr. Fandango suggested a blog One-Word Challenge using the word “mean.” I take heart that I did not think about someone performing acts of cruelty, although I cringe slightly that I also didn’t consider anything statistical which, after all, is right up on my blog masthead.
But that’s writing, isn’t it? We don’t really control it.
It turns out E. M. Forster is the source of the original saying, and that he was misquoted. He said “think,” not “mean,” which is a curious distinction.
How can I tell what I think till I see what I say?
–E.M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel