Monday, June 25, 2012

The Rules

Though I'm a writing teacher, I am not a grammar maven, much less a member of the grammar police. When I work on student writing and must pretend to be a grammar maven I do so with reference books within reach. Hard copy dictionaries (Merriam Webster, American Heritage) usually get the job done. I also keep a few bookmarked sites open on the computer: Chicago Manual of Style Q & A, Purdue University's Owl, Urban Dictionary, and a few others. Pain in the English is a fun and also aggravating site that I only occasionally refer to because I usually end up disappearing for long stretches of time when I go there, but it's a useful one that often stays my fledgling maven hand because of the range of opinions weighing in on such things as "Use of 'their' as a genderless singular," one of today's topics.

The site's mission is listed at the very top of each page: "Forum for the Gray Areas of the English Language." Well, that's nice. Then when one reads on one sees: "Because meaning is fundamentally indeterminate."

Now that's some meat to chew on. All you children's book writers out there: How does this apply to what we do? Discuss!

MarshaQ, getting reading for summer residency.


  1. Marsha,
    Yes - your method sounds about right. Actually, one of the best packets I ever got back was the second one in my first semester - it was great (in retrospect, not so much at the time) because the *other* Marsha said that she wasn't going to give me any line edits on my essay - but asked me to do it myself and revise. At first I freaked out, but then ref. books in hand - I did it. It wasn't THAT bad, and it taught me a valuable self-editing lesson: if you're not sure, look it up. And YOU nailed that home when I worked with you on my crit. thesis ... thank goodness for Grammar Girl and Hacker's Writer's Reference and advisors like *the Marshas*...

  2. I'm all for clarity, and I find my students who are bad at grammar actually don't realise how hard it is to read their stories when the grammar is poor. It's not even about being pedantic with apostrophes (I can do that anytime!), it's that their meaning is unclear, their style is all over the place and their voice is "foggy". Sentence mastery is no bad thing.

  3. Strunk and White's Elements of Style has been my go-to since high school. (And yes, that's E.B. White ... my hero.) Also very helpful is my old copy of the Little, Brown Handbook which I used in Dr. Jewett's class and actually took notes inside the book, and it is still amazingly helpful.

    I still have a long way to go on the grammar front. Last night I read through the line-edits Jane made on my papers first semester and she was always trying to get me to fix my pronoun references (I'd use those/these/them/etc. without pointing the pronouns at anything in the sentence) and she must have written "pro ref!!" a zillion times. Pronoun references still give me unmitigated hell today. Also I have not been able to untangle "lay/lie," though Lord knows I have analyzed their declensions to death.

    I look at grammar the way a mechanic looks at an engine. If you can take the sentence apart and know which parts fit into what, you can reassemble the sentence and make it run much more smoothly.

  4. When I was in journalism school, we had a Writing and editing lab class that met for three hours at a time, three days a week. We focused on sentence structure, grammar, word choice, and there were even spelling tests! Nine hours of that a week will really drill into a person where to put the commas. But the rules are always changing, so I still look things up at all the sites you mentioned. Plus, different publishers even have variations on style. As long as it's clear in the end.

  5. Oh, man... "Meaning is fundamentally indeterminate..." Damn straight. Sure there are "rules." But, as Cheryl and the other Inkpot peeps mention, once the rules are "drilled into you," you can create new meanings--recycling the old and steady into meaning that's startling new. And, boy does that "indeterminate" line carry me back to late night grad-school vino sessions with Fouccoult, Derridas, et al and their drivel...I mean, fascinating discourse! Above all, there's a case to be made in favor of the indeterminate. Meaning comes from the transaction between writer and reader and text--so "meaning" (whatever that is) is ever-changing, as each new reader approaches the same text, taking bits and parts for herself and discarding the rest--and ultimately carrying away her own meaning--one that will resonate with some, shock others, or fizzle faster than the Holmes/Cruise marriage (Spoiler Alert). And then that meaning will build upon the last discovered meaning, and all future meanings, in a living, fluid, never static tapestry of the objective and subjective. In short, "Meaning is fundamentally indeterminate."

    Until the next reader approaches the text, absorbs it, creates new meanings, (lather, rinse, repeat). Or, have we found nothing at all? Well, meaning or not, it's all grey to me... (Obviously, I'm due another round of Ellipsis Anonymous). Cool post, MQ! See y'all @ Res.