liz_marcs (liz_marcs) wrote,

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Some words about grammar from my son the nut, Allan Sherman.

When I was about 6 or so, I discovered My Son the Nut by Allan Sherman in my Uncle Tom's record collection. Admittedly, I was attracted to the cover because he was a dead-ringer for my Uncle Tom (albeit heavier) and I did, in fact, think my Uncle Tom made the record.

Well, Uncle Tom was so tickled by this, he threw the LP on his turntable (for you whippersnappers in the audience, this is back when albums were made of vinyl and were played using a diamond needle scratching along the surface) and played it for us. I was so taken with My Son the Nut that he let us borrow it.

And borrow it.

And borrow it again.

It reached the point where he finally just gave us the LP since he soon figured out that he'd never get it back if I had anything to say about it.

This album contains Allan Sherman's most famous song, a live rendition of 'Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah (A Letter from Camp).' While it remains one of my favorite songs of his, even at 6, my favorite cut was 'One Hippopotomi.' I played this cut over and over with the obsessive intensity that only a 6-year-old can have. I was so enraptured by the worldplay, even though I probably didn't get half the jokes and didn't understand a quarter of the words, that I simply couldn't get enough of it.

Even today, I still play this song over and over in my head, especially when I've had a day when the writing has been hard and the words won't come easily to me. It's a spiritual version of Linus's fuzzy blue blankie. Naturally, if I had an MP3 version of this song, I'd be playing it over and over again on my computer (viva la technologie!), but alas, there is no MP3 of this, my all-time favorite song, in my collection. So it remains merely burned in my brain.

The latest round of kerfluffles in the fanfic end of BtVS fandom has me thinking about this song a lot lately.

After watching the arguments and counter-arguments unroll with a certain fascination over the past few weeks, I realized something.

People on both sides of the divide are operating from two fundamentally different mindsets.

In one corner: the grammar (or characterization, or plot, or check-your-facts, or fill-in-your-peeve here) police.

In the other: people who wonder what the fuss is about.

Given the vehemnece on both sides of the divide, I've also realized something else. The two sides are almost never going to agree on anything.

One hippopotami cannot get on a bus/Because one hippopotami is two hippopotamus.

The saddest thing about this situation is that there's no writercon around the corner. I think people on both sides would find so much more in common than they think.

What made writercon interesting for me is the mindset that takes over when fanfic writers sit down and drink coffee together. In the whole process of getting to know various individuals, it gave me insight in how different writers tick and why they write what they write.

It's a shame that there's nothing like writercon in the near future. The last one did more to instill a sense of kumbayah among fanfic writers on LJ than anything else. Everyone's FList got longer, we were all exposed to stories we might not have read because we had met and liked the authors. Through them, we all friended more writers. I think it says something that much of the good feeling stuck around for more than a year.

I wonder, in the various discussions now going on around LJ, how much of the hurt feelings and militant posturing on both sides could be simply diffused over a cup of coffee.

And if you have two goose, that makes one geese./A pair of mouse is mice. A pair of moose is meese.

I will admit that there was one troubling (to me) aspect of writercon. There was a certain mental divide between two separate and distinct groups that was independent of subject matter, or favorite character, or even whether someone wrote het or slash. (Although I did make up a little good-humored cheer for the miniscule number of Xander-centric het and gen writers who attended: "We're here, we don't write queer, we'll be in the closet over there." It was a big hit with some of the slash writers I met.)

I think that mental divide is really what's at play here.

The mental divide was between what I dubbed, "the professionals" and "the it's-funsters." Now keep in mind, none of these terms are meant to be derogatory towards any group, but it's the only way I can explain it. (If someone has a better term, please feel free to correct me.)

On the one hand: you had people who were serious not just about fanfic, but about the technical aspect of writing. ("the professionals")

In the other: people who wrote fanfic strictly for fun and amusement and because it pleased them. ("the it's-funsters")

I know this is not 100% true, but in general the fanfic writers in "the professional" group either had worked, was working, or would be working soon in some form of communications medium. It didn't even matter the medium. There were people who wrote technical manuals, ad copy, instruction manuals, and freelance articles for newspapers and magazines. There were graphic designers. Some people were copyeditors. Others were in school and studying to go into communications. In general, the it's-funsters group had not worked and were not working in any communication medium nor did they have any plans to do so on a formal basis.

This, by the way, is all good. No problems one way or the other. Everyone co-existed just fine.

However, in some one-on-one conversations, I was flabbergasted that some of the it's-funsters would out-and-out dismiss someone's professional experience as "not being real writing."

Cue my mouth dropping open.

I would be further told that the only "real writing" was novels, plays, or poems. To go into work day after day to write or edit eight hours (sometimes more) a day, and pick up a regular paycheck for it was somehow, in their minds, not "real."

Cue me blinking in confusion.

The sad fact is, the vast majority people who make a living at writing (and a damn good one in some cases) are people who do these "not real writing" jobs. If you look at the statistics for novelists sitting on the shelf at your local Borders, especially people who occupy the midlist or lower, they are either working a day job or have a spouse supporting them with a day job.

Stephen King was an English teacher before he became Stephen King. Neil Gaiman was a reporter before he made the transition. China Mieville was an MBA student. Patricia Cornwall was a reporter who also worked as a morgue attendant. Kathy Reichs was a medical examiner. Isaac Asimov taught biochemistry at Boston University before becoming a full-time science fiction writer. Carl Hiaasen was an investigative reporter for The Miami Herald, and still is employed there as a columnist. Nathaniel Hawthorn worked as a federal employee in various capacities off-and-on for years.

That's just off the top of my head. The list, you can be pretty sure, is a hell of a lot longer.

And these are people who eventually were able to make a living solely as novelists. But, at the beginning of their careers, they were doing "the not real writing" jobs, assuming they had jobs that entailed writing.

I realized that I was dealing with an alien mindset on that front. I politely argued that even if I never cracked The New York Times Best Sellers' List, my day job(s) were really important. People needed information for their jobs and I provided that information in a way that they could easily understand and absorb. Since I work in the medical field, that information may have a huge impact on a patient's quality of life or may even save a patient's life.

Besides, from my point of view, someone is paying me for a hobby: writing. They're also paying me to do research, another hobby. The company I work for is nothing short of great. Going into work is like Christmas every day.

If I ever make the leap from writing fanfiction to pro fiction, I have to thank all those day jobs where I went in every day and wrote for 8 hours straight for making it possible. These jobs have taught be disciplined. No matter how crappy or blocked I feel, I still have to write to meet a deadline. No matter how awesome I think my writing is, a copyeditor is sure to disagree and tell me how I can do better (and they're not always polite about it). No matter how perfect I think something is, typos and spelling errors happen and the key is to fix it before it gets printed. Fact-checking is important, because if I get it wrong, I'll look very stupid.

The most important lesson from those day jobs is this: whatever I write must be clear to the reader at all times. If it isn't, what I write will be useless.

However, I can respect someone who states upfront that they're into writing fanfiction strictly for the fun/adulation/fandom love. I can even respect someone who states upfront that when they mean, "leave feedback," they mean, "leave positive feedback only." I may not understand it. I may not even agree with it. But I can respect it.

However, don't expect me or people like me to read your story, leave any feedback at all, or recommend it anywhere, especially if you don't have the chops to back up your stance. Don't expect me to give you an unequivocal pass or provide a link to your LJ or story if someone is looking for you or for genres that you write. Don't expect me to take you or your stories seriously.

Here's the thing, though. There's plenty of room for all of us. LJ is certainly big enough for the various factions and philosophies to peacefully co-exist side-by-side. If LJ is big enough, then, hell, the whole Internet is.

A paranoia is a bunch of mental blocks./And when Ben Casey meets Kildaire, that's called a paradox.

I'm going to go for some unvarnished honesty here.

I definitely fall on the "fic bitch" side of the divide. Allow me to define that:

If you're making reference to something that can be easily checked via Google, Wikipedia, or even a good Buffy Episode Guide (or any guide for your particular fandom), and you don't check your facts, consistently get them wrong, or state that you don't care when people come forward and say you're wrong and are willing to provide references, I get very, very cranky.

Why do I get cranky?

Because I sweat all details like that. I spent hours hunched over Cleveland Web sites so I could put together a puzzle that contained directions to the Grail in Living History. I did hours of research on African trickster gods for Contrite Spirits. I have a Web site links list as long as my arm just to write the liner notes for my as-yet un-posted Africander Soundtrack.


Because I'd be deeply embarrassed to get something wrong. Details are important to me. Getting them right, in my mind, allows me more leeway on the fantastic elements of the story, like demons, vampires, Slayers, Watchers, and magic.

Do I always get it right? Hell, no. I made an embarrassing mistake in Water Hold Me Down when I had Faith state that she never shot anyone with a gun. ludditerobot provided photographic evidence from '5X5' that I got that wrong. My excuse was that I spaced on that particular detail about Faith. I plan to go back and fix it.

But the point is, on one side of the divide, you have us obsessive fact-checkers. On the other, people who view facts as mutable to meet the needs of the story. And both sides will irritate each other to no end about it.

If we see something that's just factually wrong in a fic, we have a tendency to say something (most are even polite about it). So we're confused and hurt when we get the writer stating that they either know and don't care or don't know and still don't care. If the response is tinged with defensiveness (at least from the fact-checker's pov), annoyance happens.

Please understand: we're not doing it to be mean or squash your muse. We're trying to be helpful. Assuming that we are out to get you is the wrong assumption to make.

I don't understand what's so hard about saying, "Thank you for the references/information, but for purposes of this story I won't be able to use it. I'll keep it in mind in the future."

You don't have to do it and no one is making you do it. I guarantee that the fact-checker will get the hint and stop bugging you about it (although they'll probably also stop reading as well). But at least they won't get huffy about it since you were polite.

When two minks fall in love, with all their heart and soul,/You'll find the plural of two minks is one mink stole.

And here we have the grammar police. Yes, we're a pretty inflexible lot. We have our stylebooks and grammar guides. We obsessively check them if we're not sure about something. We want to say things cleanly and with little muss. We don't want people to necessarily notice the words. We want them to see the story. We want that technical aspect to be invisible, for lack of a better word, to the reader. We don't want them trying to figure out what we're trying to say due to confusing sentence structure.

Now are we perfect? Hell, no. We misspell words. We space on grammar. Sentences and paragraphs that are perfectly clear to us causes mass confusion in readers. And let's not talk about the dreaded typos.

I don't want to speak for anyone else, but whenever someone points out these bone-headed technical issues, I say: "Thank you." Then I fix it. Sometimes it takes me longer to fix it than right this second, but I will go back and fix it. When someone points these issues out to me, I don't get mad at them. I get mad at me. I made the mistake and I know better.

Singulars and plurals are so different, bless my soul./Has it ever occurred to you that the plural of 'half' is 'whole?'

On the other side of the divide, people see the laws of grammar as mutable, something that is a set of suggestions as opposed to hard-and-fast rules. There is (from our point of view) seemingly little concern about typos, spelling mistakes, or clear sentence structure. Quotes and tags are horribly formatted. Overuse of elipses makes a red film fall over our eyes (let's not get into the day I threw the latest Harry Potter across the room because I found four of them in one paragraph and couldn't take it any more — and this is annoyance with a pro author who can buy and sell me on the open market).

So, when we come forward and point out some grammar issues and get a dismissive reply in response, our heads explode.

Not because we're pissed. Not because we think you suck (although some of us might).

Our heads explode because we don't understand that thought process. Why wouldn't you want to make your story look as professional as it can be? Yes, you do it for fun (so do we). Yes, you're not getting paid for this piece (neither are we). Yes, sometimes a sentence or a paragraph doesn't precisely follow the rules in order to better serve the story (we do it, too). And yes, you have your own unique writing style (believe it or not, our writing styles are pretty distinctive).

But that's not the point. Half the fun for the grammar/spelling police in writing fanfiction is writing fanfiction that is technically solid or firmly grounded in the rules of grammar — even if we're breaking those same rules within the story.

I suppose I could say that grammar is a non-negotiable thing for me. I don't care how awesome your plot is. I don't care how unique the idea. If your writing requires me to whip out a decoder ring to figure out what you're saying, I'm not going to even bother struggling with it.

This isn't a case of a misplaced colon or semi-colon or m-dash. This is consistent abuse or lack of use of my little friends. This isn't a case of long paragraphs chock-full of exposition, it's pages and pages of it. This isn't a case of long sentences, it's a case of run-on sentences that enslave conjunctions to an indecent degree. This is not a matter of typos or a misspelled word here and there, it's a matter of consistently misspelled words and words inconsistently spelled.

In short, it's bad technique.

This drives us grammar police absolutely wild.

Not because we're mean, or elitist, or even want you to shut the hell up.

It's because language is beautiful, baby.

A bunch of tooth is teeth. A group of foot is feet./And when two canaries make a pair, they call it a parakeet.

Grammar isn't there to limit what you can write. It doesn't dictate the subject matter or the plot. It has nothing to do with content. It's all about how that content is expressed.

I used this example today, but it's such a good one that I'll use it again.

In the Daria episode, Write Where It Hurts, the English teacher, Mr. O'Neil, assigns a fiction writing task to the class. Daria, who is naturally the best student and best writer, expects that this is going to be easy.

It isn't.

Everyone around her is putting pen to paper, but she's plagued with ideas, all of which may pass muster with her classmates, but don't pass her standards. Driven to distraction, she finally admits to Mr. O'Neil that she's stumped.

His response? To impose limits on her. She can write anything she wants, provided it features a card game.

Daria believes this to be a stupid limit, but she doesn't have a choice. In the end, the limit sparks an idea that results in a better story than she expected, one that made all her previous ideas pale in comparison.

That struck a strong cord with me. Limits in writing are a good thing. The rules of grammar, building a plot, consistent characterization (or at least characterization that's recognizable), and telling a story are there for a reason. By giving us limits (don't do this) and urging us onward (you can do this), the rules give us a foundation upon which we can build an entire universe populated with the characters we talk to every day in our heads. It helps us show other people those worlds and characters.

The rules are important in and of themselves. They are the be-all and end-all of effective storytelling.

I'm not saying you can't break the rules. I'd never say that. I wouldn't even say that you suck as a writer if you do. People break the rules all the time and they often have very good reasons to do so.

However, before any writer starts breaking the rules, they have to know what the rules are. By knowing the basic rules of grammar and spelling, you will also know what rules to break, when it's permissible for you to break the rules, and how you can break the rules in service to the story.

Constantly breaking the rules and breaking the rules in every single story you write ultimately leads to lazy, incomprehensible writing. Refusing to learn the most basic rules of grammar and spelling, even though there are betas by the score and people willing to give you concrit feedback, does not make you an artist, nor does it make you strong.

And if you have plans to break into any form of professional writing after blithely ignoring the hands held out to help you, you're in for a very rude shock. Betas, people willing to give you concrit, or those who simply ignore you if you attack them when their feedback is less than stellar are light-years more polite than people who actually get paid to do the same thing.

Trust me on this: there's nothing more terrifying than a chain-smoking copyeditor with a vocabulary that would make a truck driver blush in shame calling for your head on a pike 5 minutes before deadline.

Hard drivin' betas cracking the whip? Nasty feedback on a story? Flames from people who don't like my genre, attitude or pairing?


Amateurs. The lot of you.

I've been belittled and smacked around like a cheap cat toy by pros.

What I'm saying is, if less than glowing feedback depresses you or sends your muse into hiding for days on end, your skin is way too thin. Not everyone is going to love your work, not everyone is even going to like your work. Know what? It's still all good. They don't know you and you don't know them. It doesn't reflect on you as a person at all. What they are responding to is a concrete example of your work, nothing more.

To sum up: grammar good. Grammar is that cornerstone of a big building with a time capsule tucked in it. It protects and contains Michigan J. Frog. It prevents him from wrecking havoc on an unsuspecting population, but it also reveals something magical and wonderful when properly used.

A paramecium is not a pair./A parallelogram is just a crazy square.

Grammar is the language of language itself. It's the commonly accepted pattern of words. It helps you shape your writing so it falls into the reader's mind like a gentle rain, instead of beating them to death with your meaning.

Good grammar will not necessarily make you writer, but it gives you the tools to get there.

For example, I can't speak French. I can barely understand spoken French. I do, however, have a basic comprehension of written French. I can puzzle out directions, or the newspaper, or even commemorative plaques on buildings. I can read signs. I can read advertisements.

I can't do a line-by-line translation, but I can puzzle out the basic meaning. Why? Because my Catholic school taught French from a "grammar first" standpoint. If you could understand "the code" of a language, you could eventually learn the meaning. What's more, it gives you a certain insight into the mindset of the people who speak it every day.

And yes, I really do believe there is a linguistic and mental disconnect between people whose language uses the indefinite gender-neutral articles of "a" and "the" and people whose language uses the gender-specific indefinite articles like "le" and "la" or who indicate single vs. plural using "le" and "les" or "de" or "des."

I have the basic tools for this much. I suppose that if I were really driven (and possibly insane), I could learn to write and read French well enough to write a drabble.

I'll settle for doing it well in English.

"Nobody knows just what a paraphernalia is./And what is half a pair of scissors, but a single sciz?

Stop and think a moment about the marvelous creature that is English grammar. According to Wikipedia, roughly 340 million people speak English as their first language. Another 600 million speak it as their second language. It's the third most-spoken and understood language in the world.

Think about that for a second.

There are almost 1 billion people alive right now who can understand you. They may not be able to follow your regional accent, but a good portion can read what you write and comprehend what you're writing, regardless of their country or origin.

That fact is nothing short of extraordinary.

The reason why it all holds together comes down to one simple thing: grammar.

English grammar unites the English-speaking world in ways you can't imagine. It allows us to communicate with one another through the written word. The rules of English grammar and spelling are close to universal. Even when regional exceptions in both come into play, we're still able to understand one another because we recognize a lot of the same ground rules.

We may be separated by a common spoken language that'll have us shouting "What?" at each other for years on end, but we are united by a singular written miracle.

And that, in a nutshell, is why proper grammar and spelling is important.

"With someone you adore, if you should find romance,/You'll pant, and pant once more, and that's a pair of pants!

Maybe you think I'm overreaching.

Maybe you think I'm overstating my case.

Fair enough.

But answer me a simple question:

What is the one thng that allows you to understand Allan Sherman's lyrics as quotes in this very long essay?

If you've been paying attention, I don't even have to give you an answer.

Yes, on the surface, 'One Hippopotomi' is an inconsquential air bubble of a song.

But think about this: People on every single continent, hell, maybe even people in almost every country in the world, can read the lyrics and understand exactly what Allan Sherman is saying.

That's a gift. It's one more precious than most people realize.

Some recommendations for improving your grammar:

The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition by Strunk and White.
This is the basic handbook of all writers. No excuses. I have several editions and several copies of each edition scattered between home and work. I make a living at writing, so if I have them, good bet you should, too. It costs less than $8. Less if bought used.

Woe is I by Patricia T. O'Connor

The Deluxe Transitive Vampire by Karen Elizabeth Gordon

Eats Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss
This book may be more helpful for people who write/speak British English than the American version.

Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson
It's Bill Bryson. Do I need a better reason?

Chicago Manual of Style, 15th Edition
Expensive, but covers just about every professional writing contingency outside of a specialty field you can think of, including writing for book publication. Unless you're very serious or work professionally in publishing, you probably don't need it. It's worth having a copy around, though.

FYI: For this post, comments are completely unscreened. You may tell me to stuff it (as rudely as you like), or you can sing my praises.

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