Friday, April 23, 2021

grammar-nerd heaven

Two of my friends, Neil Armstrong (yes, that's his name) and John McCrarey (yes, that's his name), don't know each other, but they both just sent me a link to a New Yorker article titled "Grammar-nerd Heaven."  I have now done my sacred duty and passed the link on to you, Dear Reader.  I like how the article begins:

It’s hard not to mythologize Bryan A. Garner. He is the Herakles of English usage. As a boy growing up in Texas, he lugged Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (Unabridged) to school one day to settle an argument with a teacher.

I didn't grow up in Texas, but I did get third place in the regional Alexandria, Virginia, spelling bee in the sixth grade.*  The prize was a $55 check—an enormous amount for a nerdy little kid back in 1980.  And what did I do with that prize money?  I knew exactly what I wanted:  the Webster's Third New International Dictionary.  I was already an avid reader of dictionaries, and I liked how Webster's had a different style for rendering pronunciation than, for example, The American Heritage Dictionary.**  Later on, in college, I took some courses in basic linguistics where I made the acquaintance of the IPA,  i.e., the International Phonetic Alphabet, which is a word nerd's wet dream.  I fell in love with the IPA immediately, in part because I could now see that Webster's pronunciation scheme had been at least somewhat influenced by the IPA.  All of this is to say that Bryan A. Garner, the Herakles of English usage, is a man after my own heart.  Of course, I may be stating the matter over-condescendingly:  Garner's love of and proficiency with English led him into hardcore territory, into which I am only beginning, at age 51, to dip a mere toe:

When he was sixteen, he discovered “Fowler’s Modern English Usage” and swallowed it whole. By the time he was an undergraduate, he knew that he wanted to write a usage dictionary. Instead of going into academia or publishing, the traditional career paths for English majors, he went into law, a field where his prodigious language skills could have broad applications. His first usage dictionary was “Modern Legal Usage,” published in 1987. “Garner’s Modern American Usage” came out in 1998 and is in its fourth edition; with a significant tweaking of the title, it’s now “Garner’s Modern English Usage.” Move over, Henry Fowler.

(Did you note the weird journalistic convention of surrounding book titles with quotation marks instead of italicizing the titles?  Now you know why I write movie titles the way I do on this blog:  there's a precedent for it.  For what it's worth, I change all quote-surrounded titles to italicized titles when I'm reformatting blog posts to be self-published as books.  Writers at The New Yorker obviously feel free not to do this.)

Interestingly, the New Yorker article*** says this:

In that era, a Grammar was second only to a Bible as a necessary object in a God-fearing household.

During grad school, in a course on comparative scripture, I learned of the existence of a fifth-century Hindu grammarian named Bhartrhari, who wrote at least two very influential scriptures, one of which deals with Sanskrit grammar and what he saw as its metaphysical import.  An easy argument can be made that the structure of language is, at least partially, the structure of thought, and to the extent that the structure of thought is shaped by the structure of reality itself, grammar is a window into reality.  Those of us who count ourselves as grammar Nazis have some inkling of this when we express the oft-repeated refrain that "sloppy grammar [or sloppy writing] indicates sloppy thinking."  The above quote from the New Yorker article, while not quite expressing the same sentiment, certainly shares some thematic resonances with Bhartrhari and us modern-day grammar scolds.

I'm at work, so I'll read the rest of the article this weekend.  So far, though, it seems quite interesting, and it almost makes we wish I could go see the exhibit it talks about:  

A selection of sixty-eight items from the Garner Collection is on view at the Grolier Club (47 East Sixtieth Street, through May 15th), with a sumptuous hardcover limited-edition catalogue that serves as a companion guide. To enter the exhibit, titled “Taming the Tongue: In the Heyday of English Grammar (1713-1851),” via a discreet door on the second-floor landing of a stairwell at the Grolier, is to climb aboard the Grammarama ride at Disneyland for Nerds.

My thanks to both Neil and John.


*The word I spelled out on was muumuu.  The reader mispronounced the word as "moomoo," when in fact it's pronounced "moo-oo-moo-oo."  Not that I knew that at the time; I discovered that fact only belatedly, after discovering the wonders of Hawaiian phonology (vowels written together in romanized Hawaiian are normally pronounced separately).  Anyway, I heard "moomoo," so, knowing that "m-o-o-m-o-o" would be a simplistic spelling, I went for "m-u-m-u." Ding went the bell that signaled I had spelled the word incorrectly.  I heard loud groans from the audience.  Later on, I realized that those groans had meant that a lot of people I didn't know had been rooting for me.  The girl who won the spelling bee, Meghan Hanrahan, was lucky to get the word "aerotrain" for the win.  Yeah, I was seething.  Somewhere in an alternate universe, muumuu was pronounced correctly, allowing me to spell it correctly, and I went on to stomp that bitch Meghan and win the bee, thus starting me on the path to becoming president of the United States, changing the USA from a republic to a warrior-empire, and initiating World War III.

**You might think you're seeing an inconsistency in how I write both dictionaries' titles, but Webster's doesn't take a definite article in front of it, so the the isn't part of the title.  By contrast, if you look up American Heritage on Amazon, you see that the dictionary's full title is indeed The American Heritage Dictionary, definite article included.  See, this is why you should always be on guard against those who think they're smart or sharp:  such people have a tendency to pounce on something they think is wrong when it's not actually wrong, hence my constant warning against false grammar Nazis, i.e., the idiots who are still screaming not to split infinitives, not to begin sentences with coordinating conjunctions, not to end sentences with prepositions, not to "misuse" the phrase "beg the question," and not to "misuse" the word decimate.  Most of these issues have already been discussed on this blog; use the search function to dig up the relevant posts.

***So maybe you now see another potential inconsistency:  I write "the New Yorker article," not "The New Yorker article," despite the magazine's full title being The New Yorker.  Technically, I should use a regular definite article followed by the title, but this leads to the awkward construction "the The New Yorker article."  Two "the"s in a row?  So for reasons of euphony, I risk being ungrammatical.  Also, there's precedent for shortening titles.  For example, if I'm writing a review of the original Star Wars trilogy, i.e., all three movies, I might write "The Empire Strikes Back" one time, then refer to it only as "Empire" from then on as a sort of shorthand.  That's what I'm doing with "New Yorker":  I'm slightly truncating the title, thus solving both problems of rhythm and euphony (euphony is fancy talk for "sounding good," from the Greek eu, meaning "good," and phōno, meaning "sound").


John Mac said...

It's good to know you have a kindred spirit... I really had no idea you were that extreme in your love of all things grammatical. Glad you are enjoying the article. Like Neil, I only scanned the first couple of paragraphs and knew it was not intended for me!

Kevin Kim said...

The rest of the article talks about the history behind elements in Garner's collection of old grammar books and language-related epistles.

Part of that history: Noah Webster apparently erroneously contended that the word "that" is never a conjunction, which we all know to be bullshit: it can serve as a subordinating conjunction in a complex sentence like "I know that you're in there!"