Happy Ugly, Relaxed Grammar and My Greatest Pet Peeve: Over-Zealous Pet Peevers

Interesting article of opinion from Ze Frank about Ugly MySpace pages (through Deborah Schultz’s blog).

I’ve always thought some design circles were too hard on the amateurs with their rules about how design x or y works. I am a proponent of the “you ought to know the rules before you break them” school of design (well, of everything artistic), but I also feel that a complete dismissal of the ugly to be a little short-sighted.

The same applies to editing and language. Back in my early Internet days, I enjoyed composing (bad) poetry on the newsgroup rec.arts.poems (aka rap). These days, like most newsgroups, rap is a cesspool of spammers and net.kooks, but back in the day, people would experiment with poetry and many turned into very good poets.

I remember sometimes after submitting a poem I’d be harshly criticized for minor grammar errors. I was even criticized on the CanLit newsgroup by George Bowering for using “reference” as a verb. I was therefore, somewhat vindicated by this article of common “errors” in English grammar that are not really errors.

Despite all the hype of the Eats, Shoots and Leaves (link to my favorite review in the New Yorker), I am very uptight about uptight aesthetes. Like the “Eats, Shoots and Leaves” principle, a grammarian went so far one day as to suggest an error in punctuation “changes meaning.” I suggested that this was preposterous — “meaning” is only effected if and when someone misinterprets a statement due to the slip in grammar, and this, in my view, is an extremely rare occurence. In most cases, punctuation errors are overcome by the context of an article. No one thinks a Panda “shoots.” The result on the reader who recognizes the error is a temporary break from the suspended reality of the composition. Instead of thinking that they are receiving “information,” they immediately become aware of the text. Most people would pass by the error altogether because context would help them to assume the correct phrase.

Sure, in the world of military communication where decisions have to be made split-second, and the consequences of those decisions are dire, you may need tight controls. But on MySpace? Or a poetry newsgroup?

And sometimes I think some of the “rules” would be better off being left to history anyway. For example, take latinized plurals like “cacti” for cactus or “fungi” for fungus. Why oh why do we need to preserve these foolish rules? Why not “cactuses?” It sounds funny at first, but we’d get used to it. Why make the language more complicated for others who want to learn it, just to preserve that English was derived in part from an old, now defunct language?

Now consider what it means to allow people to break the rules.   First, breaking the rules draws attention to the rule itself.   When human habit deviates from the “rules” one ought to think about why the rules exist in the first place.   A first thought is “for whom do these rules exists?”    Proper grammar is a cultural norm that enables those with so-called “proper grammar” to use it to lower the status of others.   But, if you appear in a bar among non-grammarians and refuse to use a preposition at the end of a sentence, the tables turn very quickly — that’s because the norms of grammar change.

Another consideration is the function of the rule — what is the rule trying to achieve?   For instance, commas can help separate items on a list to avoid confusion.  Maybe there is a better way to achieve the same function without using the comma?   We’d never know unless there are people out there making grammar mistakes in the first place.

The same goes for ugly.   Maybe we need people who ignore the rules  (or maybe we should call them conventions), if only to get us to “step back” and understand why the rules are made in the first place.   At first, we get “ugly,” but later on we get “innovative,” “re-invented,” and “provocative.”

And sometimes technological or social change makes conventions redundant.    Like what XML, folksonomies and Google appears to be doing to MARC coding, subject authorities and the OPAC.

I am not saying that conventions should not exist at some level or another.    Tradition is a good way to solve problems .  We should not try re-invent the wheel all the time, and we certainly don’t want everyone spending their time  reinventing language.   But accidents have a beauty of their own, and we should relax our tendencies for stifling people from their bad writing.    In all of us, there is a bad artist/poet/writer just waiting to come out.  And maybe we ought to do so once in a while.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s