If you’re not from the West coast you may not know that IT’S-IT is the name of a delectable ice cream treat created in 1928 when, according to the company’s web site, “George Whitney began what is now a San Francisco tradition. He placed a scoop of vanilla ice cream between two large old-fashioned oatmeal cookies and then dipped the sandwich into dark chocolate.”
I like the taste, texture, and high treat value of IT’S-IT as well as the next gal. But what I really love about IT’S-IT is that its [not it's] creator knew where to put the apostrophe in the name, thus demonstrating that an early 20th-century ice-cream maker knew more about grammar than many self-proclaimed and professional writers of the early 21st century.
(Disclaimer: The rant part of this has nothing to do with ice cream.)
I will admit to always having been a bit of a grammar and usage prude, which is, perhaps, why I enjoy copy editing. But “proper usage” is something about which I feel a bit ambivalent. (Or, in more relaxed parlance, that I feel ambivalent about.)
Since jumping into the world of self-publishing and blogging, I have thought a lot about the responsibility of writers to adhere to grammatical standards. I fully understand that languages are living things. What’s accepted as correct today may fall out of use and be seen as archaic 100 years from now. New ideas, new technologies, new ways of thinking come into being and beg for new terminology and new ways to use words.
However, I don’t believe in a language free-for-all. I have seen enough poorly written [not poorly-written], error-riddled copy to know that a writer serves no one when he or she [not they] can’t put together a sentence that makes no sense. But making sense is the least I expect. Professional writers—whether publishing on their own or through a more traditional publishing route—have an obligation to uphold the minimum standards of their times. Or, if they are going to break a rule, they ought to do it knowingly and for good reason.
I understand that blogging is different from producing a finished piece of work, so I shouldn’t be too disturbed when I find grammatical errors in blogs. (I’m sure I could find a bunch of typos and some grammatical mistakes even on—gasp!—this very blog.) But I am disturbed by grammatical errors.
Education through osmosis
One of the problems is that people sometimes don’t know what they don’t know. I was lucky enough to study writing in college and graduate school and to have been introduced to the mother of all language guides, “The Elements of Style.” However, most of my knowledge about grammar and usage I absorbed from reading well-written books. This is one of the reasons you must read well-written books in order to write well—and it’s one of the few cases where you can succumb to the dream of obtaining knowledge through osmosis. Read enough well-written books and your ear will know proper usage from improper, even if you can’t explain the rules.
I read “The Hunger Games” during my week of vacation. I found it a real page turner, but I can’t say the language was scintillating. It served its purpose to advance the plot and paint a picture of the characters. Nothing wrong with that. However, I found more than a few grammatical errors (this was in the Kindle version, not the printed version, but still, it was disappointing).
How, I ask, will the learn-by-reading approach survive if current writers don’t make sure their books adhere to some level of “correctness”—however that is defined?
A few good sites about good grammar
My plea to all writers out there who consider themselves professional: pay attention to the language. Even when you’re blogging. Hold your books to a higher standard. If you’re unsure about something, visit a grammar site and try to get your questions answered. Or just spend some of your spare time reading about grammar. Then reward yourself with an ice-cream treat.
If you think your grammar and usage are perfect already, well, I hope it you’re right, because you’re training the fiction writers of the future.
- The New York Times FAQ on Style – A one-time compilation of frequently asked reader questions.
- Grammar Girl – I love the name, but she (?) is actually a member of the Quick and Dirty Tips family (which also, interestingly, includes Legal Lad and the Math Dude. Hmmm… a bit o’ sexism here? Why not Math Gal and Grammar Guy?)
- 50 Best Blogs for Grammar Geeks – Tip of the hat to them; I found some of the ones listed here through this exhaustive list.
- Motivated Grammar – The tagline says it all: “Prescriptivism Must Die!”
- Language Log - More than just grammar, with multiple contributors.
- Terribly Write – Focused on Web sites. I did a double-take on the entry for April 12 (“fewer” vs. “less”) because it’s something I thought I knew and realized I didn’t understand fully.
- The Chicago Manual of Style Online – By subscription, but there is a free Q&A section.
- Arrant Pedantry – Like Motivated Grammar, this one is written by a doctoral student in linguistics.
That should be enough to get you going. If you find others you like, comment and let me know.
I don’t seem to be able to remember to update on the designated days, Wednesdays and Sundays, so here we go, a day late. I have started tracking word count since April 1. Through my vacation and my period of malaise I managed to add 2,883 words to my manuscript in a little less than two weeks. That doesn’t put me at exactly the rate I’ll need to get to 90,000 by June 30, but some progress is better than none.