Commentary Comment Criticism
A common refrain is “Don’t read the comments on news sites.” But not for the reasons you’d expect – but because so many obvious non-readers leave comments there.
Commentary Comment Criticism
A common refrain is “Don’t read the comments on news sites.” But not for the reasons you’d expect – but because so many obvious non-readers leave comments there.
I’ve had people ask me what makes you think you’re a grammarian?
My simple answer: “…the same thing that makes all other self-proclaimed grammarians.” Who makes dictionaries? What makes a ‘word?’ While I’m no expert on English, I’m a lover of words in multiple languages – and certainly, someone who spends an extraordinary amount of time with words dancing in delight inside my head. They are not my enemy, even when I bend them in uncertain ways.
My only enemy in language is the obtuse and illogical insistence that our language has ever reached a finished state. English is a mutt of a language and we are its barking dogs. We all share in its ownership and therefore bear some ability to shape it.
It all obfuscates the simple truth that our language does not have a governing body. Everything you know about the certainty and spectacle of language is based on the falsehood of having an overriding authority that dictates correctness. No such thing exists. Even if it did we would most likely ignore it. Usage determines correctness no matter how much you cluck about it or violently disagree. It is always been that way and it always will. The language we use today will not be the same as that used in 100 years. Correctness will adjust to the wear-and-tear of our assault on it.
I’ve had many people ask me about my status as an authority on language. My authority is the same as anyone else, except that I had an epiphany. I listened as 4 English experts disagreed on a basic idea regarding a simple expression, one which other languages do entirely differently. At the end of the table, another lover of language leaned in and asked those arguing, “But was the meaning perfectly clear in its expression?” The experts were flummoxed. “It seems to me that you’re confusing objective with process.”
The entire framework is an illusion. That many people read my derision of the self-proclaimed authorities on language and nod their heads in agreement with me doesn’t merely demonstrate that a lot of people hate the stupidity and structure of our language. It’s also because they recognize the truth of my message. And the same way that people realized they don’t need an intercessory to engage with their creator, we also aren’t in need of an external authority for language correctness. It’s our fault that we’ve allowed our written language to be so ridiculously arcane and complex. We can have deep universal and human conversations, even technical ones, without any need for spelling or punctuation – the customary nonsense that is demanded of us when we put pen-to-paper. The snobbery of grammar nerds is appalling precisely because they don’t recognize their own ignorance even as they protest and trumpet that they alone know the correct usage.
Language, spelling, syntax. All these things are evolving and moving targets, much like the wrinkled brow of the self-avowed expert on language.
Language is a living animal. Anything so fundamental to human expression doesn’t need years of study or advanced comprehension of ridiculously complex rules riddled with imaginary exceptions. It needs sanity. Almost all of our language is used informally and verbally.
While it’s amusing to some to feel versed on the English language, the greater truth is that our set of rules for its usage bear no resemblance to the purpose of language: communication and expression. We are all equally and preposterously ignorant for allowing language to be a burden on its users. Many see “Your welcome” and see it as a sign of ignorance. I do as well, except the ignorance is in the eye of the accuser. Those who use “your” instead of the contraction “you’re” are going to win the battle. You just don’t know it.
Likewise, I empower anyone reading this to stop heeding the grammarians as he or she attempts to correct you. It’s perfectly fine to define usage as ‘purist,’ because no one follows all the rules and most of us routinely butcher most of them without consequence.
My agony is in recognition of the hypocrisy on the part of my fellow humans. We’re all wrong – and always have been.
We own the language. All of us, even if it curls your eyebrows to understand.
If someone says, “I should be so lucky!” it implies that they know they’ll never be that lucky. Everyone except those recently hit on the head with a Wile E. Coyote anvil easily recognize the words spoken and the intended meaning. The word for such a phrase is ‘idiom,’ which can be loosely defined as ‘words which have incorporated a meaning not easily evident in the words themselves.’ In other words, an idiom can take on any meaning we ascribe to it, regardless of how divorced it is from logic, lexicon, and lippitude. The more vibrant and involved a culture is, the more likely that the language used has evolved in an infinite trajectory, one more often determined by confused and seemingly incoherent words.
Those most invested in the idea of a stagnant and static language usually tend to be those who incorrectly think they’ve arrived at the imaginary train station marked as “Correct.” They tend to look at a painting and see that the proportion is slightly off rather than observe that a great work of art sees them as well, in part precisely due to its defect. While language’s mechanics might be best understood in the mind of a master, it is on the lips of the young and those dancing around the fringes of normal usage who see to it that it undergoes the transformation which grants our words magic.
Usage, collectively or popularly applied, constantly creates idioms that defy their own origins. Entire books have been written on the subject and a million doctoral candidates have expounded on the folly and futility of language. The well of this subject will never run dry, as most of its underpinnings sit on opinion rather than science. The rules can be any we choose. Regardless of our choices, none of us will ever learn ‘Standard English’ as a means toward poetry or as a dialect born in our infancy.
For me, it is sport to watch educated and well-intentioned people gnash their teeth at one another for esoteric perceptions of correctness. Almost all who do battle on the field of language do so at their own peril. At feud’s end, the language has already expatriated itself to foreign terrain, evolving even in the midst of disagreement. For those who’ve not noticed, I root for the team advocating a dose of anarchy.
Another peculiarity of our language is that we can juxtapose both negative and positive connotations of the same words and phrases, yet mean exactly the same thing. Our language is stuffed with examples, ones which remind us that language is not math and the roadmap toward language in no way follows a logical course. If I shout, “I can’t hardly wait!” you know that I’m full of enthusiasm. On the other hand, if I shout, “I can hardly wait!” I mean exactly the same thing. Both listener and speaker understand the context and content of the contradictory utterances. You can artfully quibble with this specific example but be warned that our language is an arsenal of similarly-defective pairings.
When you snarl your lip and smugly make your assertions, you are not presenting the scholarly front that you anticipate; you’re demonstrating an unwillingness to bend to reality. Language is not math and it certainly isn’t logic. Its consistency lies only in the recognition that it cannot be learned like a finite subject.
We use the word ‘awesome’ without stopping to consider that ‘awful’ also derived from the same root. Usage redefined the intention of the words. I could literally write a list a mile long, one filled with words which have drifted away from their linguistic docks, often to mean the opposite of its cousins.
Having written all the above, I move to one of my most cherished phrases: “I couldn’t care less.” An idiom which reveals the flawed understanding of its detractors more efficiently would be impossible to find. Many an argument has been waged by those using the word in the presence of those who’ve made up their mind about an idiom that means exactly what it is supposed to.
There is no real controversy here, not really. Before this phrase appeared in popular usage, even before its counterpart of “could care less,” people always said, “No one could care less than I.” If said aloud, this phrase sounds as if it had been born in the stilted and feverish imagination of a terrible English writer. It died precisely because of its ridiculousness.
Saying, “I couldn’t care less” in no way conveys confusion, except in the mind of the person who doesn’t understand language, idioms, or the dynamic and evolving presence of our language. If you persist in your insistence that “I couldn’t care less” isn’t correct, you are doing so in contradiction to all evidence to the contrary. You have become contrary yourself.
Language is whatever we decide it is to be.
The sacrosanct of today will soon lie dormant on our lips, replaced by what is to come.
I couldn’t care less.
NSFW. Contains language about language.
*Yes, I know how to spell ‘grammar,’ but that’s the point.
The world is a small place sometimes. It’s hard to gauge where my ideas might reach. In places where people don’t know me, my ideas seem plausible. In others, people point to what I’ve written as a short-hand to get their point across. They write, “This,” with a link, or “This reminds me of you.” To be fair, many people also tell me I’m a moron, but with a lesser frequency that I would have otherwise expected to be the case.
When I write about people having the freedom to take back their own languages and use and abuse them as they see fit, most of the response is overwhelmingly positive. There is indeed a time and place for exacting language – and that time and place is normally one which doesn’t require our presence, much less enthusiasm, for it. The responsibility for language’s needless complexity does not fall upon the average user.
On one of my alter-ego projects, someone wrote me. She was irritated at a few of her well-meaning and passive-aggressive friends and family, some of whom apparently rejoice in being grammar police. She told me that several of her friends and family were afraid to post anything and sometimes say anything, anticipating the overzealous criticism. She had tried ignoring them, politely asking them to stop and finally, in a last-ditch effort, she started lashing out at them. She saw some of my craziness on someone’s blog and decided to offer me a chance to weigh in.
My appeals to tell those who think English is a fixed target should go jump in a frozen lake struck a chord with her. She said she had never thought of Standard English as a formal and shared means to learn a dialect that no one learned at home – or that spoken language drives the language no matter how many cries of anguish we hear from those invested in “correct English.”
“I need a way to get my point across, even with a sledgehammer, if necessary. What do you recommend?” she wrote.
“Well, if you’re all adults, I recommend avoiding behavior which invites more contempt. They’re not going to change, that much is obvious. It’s not a ‘you’ issue, not really. They need to gain esteem by policing other people. You can’t fix them, so you need to focus their attention away from you.” So far, so good, as I wrote back.
“First, it’s important that you politely tell each person who has been a pain in your rear to please stop and that further trolling is unwelcome. Then, each time one of your friends, family, or acquaintances pulls their grammar nonsense, send them this,” I wrote:
<To the grammar police: You put the ‘dick’ in ‘dicktionary.’ Regards, Don’t Care >
I told her to write it every time someone pulled out their bag of tactics on her – after they ignored one more final polite request to please stop. If they responded with anger, write the same thing, over and over. If they tried to police her in person, I told her to say it out loud, even in awkward social situations. I pointed out that her social faux pas was no greater than theirs, that of policing other adults in trivial matters.
“If that doesn’t work, let me know.” I wished her well and told her to follow through every time her hackles went up. I reminded her that it was senseless for her to get upset and to instead transfer that irritation back those being jerks. I warned that it would take time. She told me that a few of her friends and family had been torturing her for years and that a few weeks of concerted effort would be better than living the rest of her life under the thumb of a bunch of control freaks.
Several days later, she wrote me and told me that at first it really bothered her to be discourteous. After a few times, though, she got invested in the reaction. She had one last hold-out, though, a family member who tended to lash out about any topic, whether it be politics, religion, grammar, or how to fold towels in the guest bathroom.
I asked her to send me the name of the family member so that I could get a picture from their social media. After she did so, I told her to check her email and follow the instructions and to only follow them if the person torturing her didn’t heed one last polite request to please stop bothering her.
Over a week later, she wrote back, to tell me that it had worked beyond belief.
Her family member had become irate and sent an email and social media messenger blast to all their mutual friends and family, accusing her of lashing out without reason. Her family member didn’t stop to realize that it provided the victim with a list of everyone affected. She wrote back to all of them, asking them to let her know if they were interested in knowing the real story. Most did and after reading her explanation were completely on board. Almost all agreed that it would be better for everyone to ignore what they perceived as errors – and to certainly not condone those who continued to be jerks after politely being asked to step away or to bother someone else who had no objection.
The picture attached to this post is what she emailed, after begging and politely requesting relief at least a dozen times…
P.S. It’s important that anyone reading this understand that at each stage I insist that the first course of action is to respond with politeness and courtesy, even if the person making your life a living hades is beyond redemption.
P.P.S. I didn’t invent the word ‘dicktionary.’
You don’t need my permission, of course. You certainly don’t need my approval, either. Likewise, you are entitled to roll your eyes in derision, mockery or contempt at anyone who corrects you for your punctuation or grammar in a text message. Unless your relationship is based on inequality, you should also expand this idea to include all private messages.
I’m not advocating total disregard for decorum – it’s not an invitation to use the ceiling fan to shave your back hair. Rather, my point is that anyone who takes the time to admonish you for informal text communication is a bigger nuisance than any perceived wrongdoing from sloppy language.
If the other person is chiding you good-naturedly, it doesn’t count as snobbery, so try to let those instances slide without a street duel. I’m not advocating that you be an ass to light-hearted cajoling or ridicule. What I am asking is that you take charge of your life and stop worrying about grammar and content when you are informally communicating. We didn’t vote on this concern – so ignore it.
It’s amazing how much of your life can be lived in this manner. Even a life perfectly lived will draw criticism, right down to the style of pants you wear or how you like to eat your french fries.
Those who relish correcting grammar can’t be stopped, so it’s best to adopt the position that they all suffer from the incurable disease of Grammar Tourette’s Syndrome, except their affliction stems from the mistaken idea that they are arbiters of grammar, spelling, and usage and this status compels them to lash out in self-appointed glee.
Sidenote: English doesn’t have a committee to decide usage or structure. It’s a fluid, evolving mass of ridiculous logic and rules. It belongs to all of us. Standard English is a myth we strive for without pausing to consider that it’s a moving target. Even if we understand the rules, they certainly don’t hold sway in our intimate private lives.
Life is short. Using tools for rapid, convenient communication should not be an ordeal or an exercise in English 101. Be as vigilant as you find it necessary to be and adjust accordingly. But if your blurbs to others are treated with a hostile eye, assume that the person complaining is a bit of an ass and go about your life as if his or her presence in no way determines how you’ll live. That part is most certainly true.
One of life’s greatest pleasures is knowing the rules and ignoring them. No matter how vigilant you are with language, you’re going to make mistakes. Even when you’ve followed all the rules, there will still be disagreement, even among the most educated and learned individuals. Language is not science, nor will it ever be. Since it’s always evolving, become a deliberate part of that process and reject all the components and obligations which don’t serve you.
Take a moment and really, really piss off a language purist. Write as you will and laugh when the sputtering objections commence. If they’ve taken the time to let you know how irritated they are by your lack of adherence to the ‘rules,’ you owe it to yourself to help them get over their unnatural affliction.
Get out your phone and text someone now. Pretend that you’re drunk and can’t spell any word longer than ‘eel.’ You’ll thank me for it.
C U later.
Warning: Political and/or Social Commentary
Isn’t it strange that people howl for empathy for the Vice President, a wealthy man with access to the world and everything in it? Even as he continues to misuse conviction to preach to all that some are not his equals, he has one of the world’s biggest pulpits from which he can pontificate to people. We owe him no tears. His vocation is one he campaigned for. He is not immune to rebuke. In fact, rebuke is as much a part of public life as adulation is. We are paying him to fulfill his duties and he works for all of us, not just those which conform to his brand of fear and distrust masquerading as politics. Perhaps if Pence spent more time representing the totality of this inclusive country and less time pandering to those who agree with his ideology, he might have more ears tuned toward compassion when he’s talking.
Whether it’s climate change, immigration, LGBTQ issues, evolution, or any of the other issues which he has planted his feet firmly in the past over, Pence is not where this country is headed, especially for the younger generation. It is the natural progression of things for those threatened by new or better ideas to angrily point accusatory fingers at those who want us all to be standing on a level playing field.
Students at Notre Dame opted to use their right to peacefully protest against this man’s policies and therefore this is not an indictment on the mindset of young people: it’s a refutation of the man’s ideas. Whether they protest at school or in public, they are adults, given the ability to reason and to demonstrate against things which violate their beliefs. They didn’t attack Pence as he has so often attacked the weaker and unvoiced masses. They didn’t take away any of his rights, limit his healthcare, reduce his wages, interfere in his appearance at the podium, or in any way harm him; they merely objected to his ideology and expressed their displeasure with their feet. This is exactly how things are supposed to work. Surely no one is to suggest that an adult must feel compelled to be complicit and present in the display and conspiracy of ideas woven by such a man as Pence.
To say that students have blemished the school, themselves or this country by exercising their right to object is a greater misstep than 1,000 such peaceful demonstrations. Regardless of how their tuition was paid, these adults protested in a manner befitting our country, at a university which itself is in the education business. Those students earned the right to their degree and they reiterated their right to protest. It’s interesting for politicians to deride students and universities for protest. Perhaps feeling rejected will provide some glimmer of recognition in their hearts as to how deeply inhumane many of their policies and beliefs come across.
The idea that people shouldn’t protest simply because it makes another segment uncomfortable is precisely why the protest is necessary. Just because you are privileged or wealthy enough to turn your head away and to expend no effort is in no way an indicator of what motivates much of the rest of the country. If they choose to peacefully protest, you can shake your head in disagreement with the content of the protest but never against the idea of protesting itself.
It is only through resistance have any of our major social changes flourished. Change requires stress to whatever prevailing ideas and traditions live in the moment. If you are sitting on the side entrenched in the past, you are going to experience turmoil as the world changes without you.
Notre Dame is a cross-section of the brightest young adults in our country. We indeed should start worrying only when they STOP resisting things which no longer represent our country.
Lastly, someone should explain to Pence and people like him that the 1st amendment right of free expression pertains to the relationship between government and individual citizens. Thus, it is Pence’s job to ensure that he understands that his role as VP requires him to welcome debate and dissent even when it’s directed to or at him specifically. Angrily rebuking those who choose to exercise their right not only demonstrates a dangerous demagoguery but also an ignorance of one of the most fundamental means of letting our government know they are going astray.
PS: Protest at a school or university carries the same validity as does protest exercised anywhere else. You sound ignorant when you draw a distinction.
Recently I briefly wrote about an English teacher who trusted me with his original novel. His name was Harold McDuffie, an unassuming-looking man with what I would call a policeman’s mustache. While his teacher style was dry, I could see that he appreciated literature. His love for words didn’t translate well, not in terms of enthusiasm or charisma. I think in part this might be because high school students weren’t his ideal audience. These opinions are all mine, of course. For all I know, he might have anticipated each day to interact with young people. Works by Melville or Faulkner, however, tended to be at the bottom of the playlist for the average high school student.
One day, without much fanfare, Mr. McDuffie stopped me and asked me if I would be interested in reading a novel he had written. He warned me that it had some mature content and that I needed to be careful with that aspect of it. I think he knew that my home life had exposed me to things beyond the contents of his novel but he was smart enough to know that it was a risk, one that I would not expose him to. I was flabbergasted and honored. Reading the words someone chooses to put on paper inevitably lets us get to know them better and connects the mechanics of translating ideas to words and content.
After I wrote a lengthy interpretation of a book, Mr. McDuffie had asked me why I had not shortened my homework. I told him that I thought writing was easy. All one has to do is to put pen to paper and not stop. (Later, Steve Martin stole my idea for the New Yorker and one of his books.) “What about the mistakes?” Mr. McDuffie asked. “There aren’t any if you refuse to see them that way.” It turns out this is a common life theme for many of us.
Later, he brought in a printer’s box full of several hundred linen sheets of paper. I had never held an original unpublished work before and effect was mesmerizing. The title of the book was “Taking Care,” and the main character’s name was Budd Clevenger. The plot involved a drunk-driving death and the cycle of vengeance that followed. Drunk driving was a topic woven all through my childhood: my father had killed a cousin of mine while drunk, I had been in a few accidents involving alcohol, and my parents had each been rewarded with multiple DWIs. They were also involved in the DWI “fixing” scandal that sent a notable lawyer to prison.
As many things as I’ve forgotten, I will never forget the excitement of taking the novel home, opening the box, and starting on page one with the inside cover sheet. I had to carefully pick out sheet, read it, and lay it face down on the other side of the box. Despite the book’s length, I read it in one evening. One thing about the novel that caught me was that it was one which took place in Northwest Arkansas, traversing places I might have known.
Even as a work of fiction, Mr. McDuffie did as so many authors had done before him: he secreted away little slices of himself into his novel. While I had no way to know which pieces might be fiction and which might be truth, it opened my eyes to him as a real person struggling with the same life issues that everyone else had. He was a descriptive and gifted writer.
Over the years, I have done deep web searches to see if McDuffie’s novel ever made it to the shelves or to a screenplay adaptation. His novel deserved such a chance. While it was no work by Faulkner, it was worthy of being shared and read; because it wasn’t Faulkner, though, it would have appealed to a broader range of interested readers.
That I remember the title of the book and so much about it should indicate the level of attention I gave to the novel. While I read many books in Mr. McDuffie’s class, I read those with a casual indifference granted to schoolwork; as for his original unpublished novel, I gave it the reverence it deserved. It would have been sinful to have not shown appreciation for the gift of sharing that my English teacher granted me.
Beyond the act of sharing the book, he shared a moment with me. It turns out to be one which lingers. Thanks, Mr. McDuffie.
(PS: I also have some stories about good and strange times I had in his wife’s classes, too)
I disguised the original coach and subject of this picture. But his salary alone is $3,200,000 a year.
I wonder about the sanity of public university employees being paid so much – regardless of who is actually footing the bill.
It’s one of the few jobs where no one thinks twice about a grown adult screaming at other people – during a game of sport.
And the participants are all earning nothing for their efforts, while those on the sidelines are paid.
Everything they say and do is treated like words of wisdom and worthy of comment and reflection.
This website isn’t as straightforward as you would think. Once you input your information, you should scroll and read through all the information on the results page.
Everyone who takes a minute to do more than a cursory glance has discovered something new.
One thing that I find informative is how the results compare an event in the past to your birthday, versus your birthday to present day. It compresses time into a surprisingly narrow and rapid series of events.
For me, it was interesting to think about time in gaps. For example, in 1976, the US’ 200th birthday, I was only 9 years old, but I remember hearing about WWII, thinking it was ancient history. But for those telling the stories, it was less than 30 years before, a long generation. From 1976 until now is much more time than from when I was 9 back to WWII. It adds an almost hidden element to time. Our memories both compress and elongate history.
I know I mention this idea frequently, or a version of it. But it’s an ongoing smack-my-forehead obvious thing to me.
Financing one’s education is ridiculous in a county with so much wealth. We can and should revamp our entire system to encourage free access. Extraneous programs should be eliminated; private schools should be available to compete with subsidized education.