Writing: Popular Pedantry


Popular Pedantry

I’m going to start this story with its own little story. We’re going to talk, for a few seconds, about the food stamp ‘issue’ in America.

See, there are people looking to beef up food stamp regulations in this country–beef them up to keep folks from buying ‘luxury items’ such as soda, junk food, steak, or lobster. I don’t want to get too into the politics of this–I’ll just say that, if I were on food stamps and they banned me buying soda, I would be a quivering pile of unhealthy and certainly unemployable jelly for a period of months as I got over my Diet Dr. Pepper addiction. Afterward the state would undoubtedly be paying my living wages, as well as for my breakfast, while I picked up the pieces of my shattered sodaless life.


The reason I’m bringing it up is the same reason lawmakers and pushy online commentators bring it up. The reasons folks have been giving for supporting such a bill have little to do with an overextended budget, or a lobster shortage, or what have you. While the purpose of the bill is essentially to curb abuse of SNAP benefits, that isn’t why people support it. The reason folks support this bill is because, at some point in their lives, they’ve been standing in line at the grocery store, and they’ve seen someone pay for steak or lobster or what have you with food stamps. This whole issue blew up because of a receipt some lady found in a parking lot this one time.

I know, right?

Your first question, upon reading this statement, was probably the same as mine: why the fuck were you paying this much attention?

I can honestly say I’ve been standing next to a stranger while he or she pays for groceries maybe, oh, .05% of the time I’ve spent in a grocery store line. Usually, I’m back a polite distance, reading the tabloid headlines. Sometimes, it takes me a minute to notice they’ve left.

I don’t think I’ve ever noticed what card they used to pay.

And that’s been my main reaction to these restriction attempts. Not oh no poor people don’t deserve lobster or gah rich entitlement. It’s been: wow. Are we really this open about our own nosiness now?

We spend a lot of time (and I blame the internet for this, though it’s always happened to a lesser degree) concerning ourselves with other peoples’ business. What women wear, what poor people eat, chance remarks by some C-list celebrity.

And, in writerly circles: about typos and grammar.

Why are we all so suddenly concerned about the Oxford comma, someone’s placement of who and whom?

Don’t get it twisted, if someone published a novel and the grammar therein is execrable, by all means, point it out. This is a serious problem, and it denotes sloppy editing. If you didn’t care enough to figure out the basics, I don’t care enough to give you five stars. My reasoning for this has nothing to do with me liking you as a person, or caring deeply about English grammar–your lack of care interfered with my ability to read your story. It made your story crappier. It lessened my ability to enjoy your novel. A more conservative person than I might point out that your tax dollars are going into that food stamp purchase–so I might argue your money went into the purchase of this sloppily edited book. Therefore, if the grammar got in the way of you enjoying your money’s worth–well. Mayhap the literary steak and lobster of grammatical license isn’t to be given.

Y’see, grammar exists for one reason, and one reason only. English grammar is the set of rules that help a reader decipher meaning in the complicated code of the English language. If your shitty grammar gets in the way of someone understanding what you said, you have a major problem, and you need to correct it.

If, however, your use of the fucking Oxford comma doesn’t meet Chicago style handbook regulations, boo hoo. The situation where an Oxford comma is necessary is relatively rare, so why is the internet blowing up about it?

The fact is, typos and grammar errors happen. Every once in a while, you’re going to make one, and you (and your proofers) are going to miss it. It’ll burn you, when you’re rereading your published masterpiece. It sure will. But it happens. Even if you think it hasn’t happened. You might not even have noticed it yet.

I’m mentioning all this because I picked up an indie novel recently. I noticed, in perusing reviews, a reader had complained about the grammar in the novel, and had given a three-star review for that reason. So I opened the book with some trepidation, but hell, it was only a buck.

Imagine my surprise when the grammar was just fucking fine. There were a handful of typos, and a few occasions where I might’ve made a run-on sentence a little shorter, but overall–just fucking fine.

Were those small infractions really worth dinging a story two stars?

I didn’t think so. The story was good, the plot cohesive, the characters well drawn. I enjoyed it. I had no trouble reading it. I’ve occasionally seen more typos in ebooks released under a major publisher.

My point: we sometimes use grammar criticism for our own nefarious purposes. We use it as a way to bolster our own literary appearance and writerly status. This needs to stop. Grammar is a tool, and a story is infinitely more than the tools it was built from. I’m a grammarian and an amateur etymologist by nature–I love me some words, basically–but even I recognize there are occasional faults in the machine, even (grammar gestapo, go ahead and gasp) places where poor grammar works better than perfect. If it works, reward that.

Writing is a magical and mystical process, in which you put a bunch of typed characters together and, if you do it well enough, images are generated in someone else’s brain. It’s a little bit like telepathy. If poor grammar stops or damages the flow of these images, by all means, ding someone a star. If it doesn’t–if, basically, you only noticed it because you were looking–consider letting that dangling gerund phrase go.

In short: stop looking in other people’s literary carts. Mind your own business–when reading a novel, the business of a reader–and ask whether or not the story worked for you, not whether or not it plays by the rules.

And, again, to quiet the hounds: if you feel your literary ‘tax dollars’ are being misspent, do what the food stamp folks are doing. Take to the internet and complain about it. Bad grammar might be a reason the story does not work. Ruinous grammar is, well, you got the idea from the adjective.

But a typo or two? Not the mistake of the century. Not lifting your out of the story too much.

And a note: if you must be Gina Grammar to someone’s self-published ebook, at least be helpful. You ‘found a few typos?’ List them, and where they are. Ebooks can be republished at a few hours’ notice. If you’re kind enough to list, the author will probably thank you. Nobody wants typos, and it’s far easier to correct them when someone tells you where they are.

5 thoughts on “Writing: Popular Pedantry

  1. Here’s something to consider about food stamps, since you brought it up.

    Hear me out.

    If somebody’s going to be on food stamps, their money will go a lot farther buying hamburger than it will lobster – feeding them and their family more times. Water works pretty good right out of the tap, too, so drink that while using what would have been spent on sodas to buy more hamburgers to feed the clan longer. It’ll suck not eating Pop Tarts for a while. Maybe we should call it Basic Staples And Food Underpinnings stamps, or BS & FU.

    I personally know somebody who bought filet mignon steaks with food stamps, then walked out to her band new Lexus and drove away. Oh, yes I do.

    Hear me out.

    See, a very nice lady, let’s call her Annie, had a sister who became a drug addict and went to jail (and a lot of other terrible horrible things). Let’s call the sister Barbara. Public assistance helped Barbara receive food stamps while she got her act together. But since Babs was a party girl, every time she got some dinero or some food stamps, she traded them for drugs and whooped it up for the weekend. Hey, she was an addict. She fell off the wagon a few (dozen) times on her slow road to recovery.

    What did Annie do? Annie bailed her sister out and got her an apartment and paid her electric bill and made sure Barbara had enough to get by – and Annie took the food stamps when they showed up. Annie made sure her sister had enough to eat, employed her at the family ranch, helped her rebuild her dignity, and pretty much saved Barbara’s life – for YEARS. Annie was in the technology sector and made good money. She could afford to take care of her sister. But Annie knew – because she saw firsthand – that if Barbara got anything to trade for drugs, Barbara would go off the wagon again. So Annie confiscated the hundred dollars worth of food stamps each time and spent THOUSANDS of dollars out of her own pocket each month taking care of her sister.

    If you’d have seen Annie in the grocery store, you’d have seen her buy bread and steaks and green beans and whatever the hell else she wanted. If she wanted crab legs or lobster, she’d have bought that, too. And part of how she would have paid for it was with the food stamps from Barbara. Then you’d have seen her walk out to her nice car and drive away.

    And you’d have a completely wrong picture.

    Grammar exists for a reason, as was stated. But just as we somehow no longer speak like Shakespeare or even write certain words the same way as our friends in the UK, our whole language is a changing thing. You are neither supposed to write stories with adjectives NOR are you supposed to use semicolons; yet both are acceptable in modern English. And often when you write things properly – like that “nor” up there – it looks odd or wrong. Hundreds of new words are added to our vocabulary each year. Google became a noun and a verb. Things change.

    Grammar may be susceptible to such whims, too, eventually. My advice? Assume the best when you see a lady buying lobster with food stamps. Maybe it’s her dying 9 year old kid’s birthday wish or her 10th wedding anniversary. Let ‘em have an occasional treat. Same with an occasional typo or grammar error in a book. Odds are you mess up at work sometimes, too, but it’s good to know you believe perfection is attainable. Point out the mistake, be a good sport about it, and help the writer out.

    Doth we all not harken to more grandiosely fry fish asunder, milady?

  2. I believe thou art correct, my merry lord! These fish, being of changeable and periodic nature, art in their very essence subject to change. And it perhaps behooves us not to immediately partake in the mistake of the man who casteth the first stone, but is not without sin himself. 😛

    My favorite thing in this vein has been the skirt-ruffly outcry against adverbs lately. I blame Stephen King and his ‘road to hell is paved with adverbs’ quote in On Writing. If you read some Victiorian fiction–Wilkie Collins is particularly bad for this–you’ll find the road to hell is paved with adverbs as well as the road to heaven, and possibly the road to London, in a Collins novel.

    And was The Woman in White a great book? Yes! Hell yes!

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m serious about grammar–but not about the rules and sticking to them. What matters is having grammar good enough to get your point across. Grammar is a tool, and it should be used, like any other tool, for building the house that is your work of fiction. Nothing more and nothing less. Pedantry is tiring, grammar pedantry particularly tiring.

    (PS–I can’t like this post, as I’m on my Kindle. But, just so y’know, if I could, I would, like, a thousand thousand times. And your friend Annie, and people like her, are the reasons we all need to keep our eyes on our own damn carts at the checkout.)

  3. I worry about pointing out typos or grammar mistakes, even though it’s my job, but sometimes I’ll apologetically flag these errors because, frankly, I’d want to know if it were me.
    However, I certainly wouldn’t adjust my review according to these sorts of mistakes. That seems a bit harsh.

    1. The only time I’d do it is if the grammar or spelling made it difficult for me to read the story, or in some other way affected how much I liked it. Otherwise, I agree with you–these little things happen, and a few of them shouldn’t change your view of a story. A ton–well. It pulls you out of the world the writer is trying to draw you into.

      But yeah, two stars off for a few little things made me raise a major eyebrow. Especially since the review was basically just ‘bad grammar and poorly edited, otherwise enjoyed it’–were I the author, I’d want to know the where and how too.

  4. Ya know, I learned grammar by reading books, back in the day when publishers spent real money to get good editors and allowed them enough time to do their jobs. English class was a breeze. I might not know the rule and all the hokum about noun, verbs, articles, etc., but I could generally spot a mistake.

    Now that I’m an author, I feel some obligation to do the job as well as I can so I don’t mess up some poor reader. And generally, the number of mistakes has to be darn high before I’ll mention it in a review.

    As to telling an author about typos, I’m reading for my pleasure, not to edit their work for free. I’m not stopping to make notes unless I’ve signed on for a critique of a final manuscript. God forbid that a writer’s story is so slow readers don’t mind keeping track of all the nits!


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