On Grammar: Prescriptive vs Descriptive

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I just read a review of a book that advocated descriptive grammar over prescriptive grammar, that the way people use the language is more important than the way the language is “supposed” to be used, and I’m having a serious talk with myself.

I’ve always been what I consider a reasonable prescriptivist; that is, I think that language has rules, and those rules are what allows the language to function as a tool of communication–and that’s why they should be followed.

But I’m reasonable about it.

If people stop distinguishing between “who” and “whom,” is it the end of the world? No. There are some moments when case matters, when the distinction between subjective and objective  is critical, like the sentence “He likes Mary more than I” in which case it’s fine, he can like Mary more than I like her. People like different people. No problem.

But what if I say “He likes Mary more than me”? He prefers Mary’s company to mine? Now we are in a fight. And all over one little pronoun, the subjective “I” and the objective “me.” (In case it’s been a while since grammar lessons, the subjective is the doer or the actor in the sentence, like “I” do things. The objective is the recipient of the action in the sentence, as in things are done to “me.”) I would argue that prescriptive grammar trumps here, since communication will be lost if the rule isn’t followed. Relationships could end!

I do listen to my students when they say, “But you know what I mean!” and their pleas for descriptive grammar. So what if “irregardless” literally means “without without regard”? “People know what you mean when you say it!” my students cry. (Yes, they know that you don’t know how prefixes work!) But honestly, if the message of a lack of regard is sent to the receiver, does it matter if you add the extra syllable?  The ultimate goal of any language is communication after all, and if your message is received and understood correctly, what does it matter in the end?

But, I still argue, it does matter. Maybe not in the little words like “irregardless” or the oft battered “literally,” but in the big picture. Words change meaning. They adapt. That’s what makes English so awesome. And it’s going to happen. But there are some overarching guidelines that we can’t just ditch altogether, or we won’t be able to understand one another at all. People have been arguing over the “rules” of grammar for a long time now; let them have something to argue about. Language has to have some substance, some way that the speakers agree on; otherwise, we’re all just making sounds at each other and this post is a series of random letters with odd spaces thrown in for fun.

So I’m not advocating for a National Council for the English language to preserve the language or anything–that battle was fought hundreds of years ago and ended in dictionaries. I just think that prescriptive grammar still matters. Descriptive grammar is interesting and relevant, and worth studying, but it’s not worth emulating, not when the language is capable of such great feats.

After all, an important part of writing is learning the rules so that you can break them later.

 

 

“There is nothing new under the sun…”

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Is there anything new under the sun? A friend of mine once worried that she had nothing to contribute to the ever-growing body of words. “How can my story be worth reading?” she asked. “It’s not original. This story has been done over and over again.”

True, I told her. The events in the story may have happened in another story. And maybe I had even read that story, or imagined it myself.

But it doesn’t matter.

Because she had never told that story. And that’s what makes it worthwhile. No one could tell it like she could. No one else would tell it like she would. I don’t care how many monkeys you put in the room, even if they can eventually recreate Shakespearean plays, no one else will put those words together in quite that way. No one will focus on the things she will focus on. No one will emphasize the features that she thinks deserve emphasis.

And so I told her that her story was worthwhile, was valuable, was worth sharing, and it was worth doing all of that as only she could do it.

I think this is a valuable lesson for those of us writing now, in a world flooded with words, flooded with stories and versions and retellings about anything we have thought about. Harold Bloom wrote about the anxiety of influence, the idea that because all authors unconsciously absorb the patterns, tendencies, styles, etc. from the books they read, they also unconsciously repeat those motifs in their own writing–thus making their own writing an amalgamation of the ideas they have collected over a lifetime of reading and listening and watching and learning. All current writing is influenced by the writers and thinkers of the past. You can’t escape the influence. And so, there is nothing new under the sun, and it’s all been said before. Maybe, but you’ve never said it before.

You can hate on Stephenie Meyer and her vampires all you want, but she definitely struck a chord with her readers. And what did she write about? Vampires plus high school romance. Both of which have been done before, and done again and again and again, and yet, Meyer’s story captivated millions of readers. Some of them may have read their Stoker, or maybe they had only heard of vampires from tv or movies, but it didn’t matter. Readers drink it in anyway because this was a new story, a slightly different tale with small changes (sparkle anyone?). I write cheesy romances with vampires–done and done and done again! But my vampires are MY vampires, and no one else would write about them the way that I do. And that’s why I should write about them.

So don’t worry if your story isn’t brand spanking new original. Don’t worry if it’s been done in ancient times or in a movie last year. You haven’t done it yet.

Give it a try–who knows what chords you may strike?

 

This place, That place…

I just returned from a 4000 mile road trip around the Eastern US, and I’ve noticed something. When you’ve been in the car, watching the landscape slide by the windows for hours on end, you realize that Everywhere, America looks like Everywhere Else, America. Remove the dusting of snow, the covering of kudzu (the plant that ate the South), change the elevation slightly, alter some letters in the town names, and all places seem to blend into one. There’s a gas station, usually more than one, three or four competing family type restaurants (insert Chili’s, Applebee’s, Cracker Barrel here), a Walmart, and some other big box stores. Michigan, Ohio, Georgia, Carolina (North or South), New York, Florida–it all looks the same except for the hills/mountains in the distance or lack thereof.

I’m not saying that different places in America don’t have distinct personalities. I’m sure that if I were to spend time in a local haunt, talk to some people who live there and work away from the stops near the highway, or spend more than a passing moment actually in the place, each town would leave distinct impressions on me. And certain places on this trip did that.

Boyne, Michigan is a tiny little town, but they have an indoor water park. In Michigan. I live in Florida and we don’t have indoor water parks! I know, I know, you are thinking “Why would they need water parks inside? Florida weather is postcard perfect heavenly!” Of course. But spend a sweat-soaked July afternoon cooking in the Florida sun, and then tell me you wouldn’t enjoy the regulated 68 degrees of an indoor water park! (end rant)

I went to Niagara Falls as a child, but have few memories of the place (lots of water and noise). Apparently, we must have gone during the summer because the American side seems to roll up the streets during the winter. Still, it was nice to stand near the falls (Yes, I know the view from Canada is better. Yes, I know there is more to do over there. We didn’t bring our passports, so it wasn’t an option.), hear the roar, feel the icy spray, and watch my five-year old  daughter giggle in delight as she pulled icicles from the railing and throw them over the cliff. Apparently, wonder of the world = 0; icicle tossing = 1.

New York City is always different from anywhere else, but I grew up going to the city often, so it’s not a new delight to me. It’s still wonderful and amazing every time I go, but it’s always part of a trip to visit relatives–and that’s never the same as going somewhere to be on vacation. We did go on the Staten Island Ferry and splash by the Statue of Liberty though (and some guy tried to sell us tickets to the free ferry ride, of course. Welcome to New York!).

I have never been to Myrtle Beach, so that was nice. Even though it’s Spring Break, we were at a smaller family-oriented resort, so the party madness was far away. I live in Florida though, so the beach isn’t that different for me. It was odd to remember that the big deal on the Atlantic is the sunrise, not the sunsets I see over the Gulf at home.

But even with those places standing out, there were still thousands of miles of the same, of truck stops and stores and people who all seemed to blend together in the end: Americans. Even getting off the interstate to follow two-lane roads through back country started to look the same–windmills here in the mountains, heavy farming equipment parked there in fields, abandoned houses with collapsed roofs every few miles.

I keep trying to think of this similarity of geography in terms of my writing (and my reading). When characters in a story are in a forest, it can be Any Forest; so too for Any Small Town, Any Village Pub, Any Place Anywhere! How can I make my places distinct? And then, ultimately, does that really matter? I don’t generally focus on the place in the story (unless it’s significant, integral to the plot, familiar and named, or I’m reading Tolkien who beats me over the head with his detailed descriptions of foliage); I focus on the characters. I care about them and what they do and say; the place is usually just background, useful for details about personal comfort or delightful view, but ultimately forgettable–or at least understandable as some generic version of the place.

Maybe I should spend more time thinking about places as distinct. Then I will see the difference the next time I drive around the country.

 

That’s French, eh?

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I’ve been on vacation this week with my husband’s Canadian relatives, and I’ve heard a lot of French. My in-laws switch from English to French and back again mid-sentence. It’s been an interesting experience to hear a language that I definitely do not speak, and I’ve enjoyed sitting back in the crowded room, trying to follow conversations with half words and body language. I don’t mean to say that I’ve been ignored in any way–when they speak to me, they always use English, but I enjoy listening to the pockets of discussion amid family members: the exclamations of frustrated children, the questions from other rooms as someone hunts for something, the names of friends and relatives that I could understand if I saw them in print, but cannot hear except for a slurry of vowels and cadence.

The English major in me knows that English has a lot of French words, make that a ton of French words, that it absorbed after the Norman Invasion. I even know how French influence changed both pronunciation and spelling, and I explain the transition from Old English (Beowulf!) to Middle English (Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales!) to my students each semester. But knowing the history of a language and being able to sit in a room full of people who speak it are very different things, and I’ve found my vocabulary straining this week as I try to parse the French sounds from the words I know on paper and then connect them to the French inspired English words. After all, the French gave English something close to 10,000 words (because English did what it does best between 1066 and the 13th century–absorbed words); in fact, some scholars say that the average English speaker already knows some 15,000 French words already. I find myself trying to remember that this week. It’s not that I don’t recognize the words, I think; it’s that I don’t hear the sounds and translate what I’m hearing (which is a lot of musical ups and downs with lots of “j” and “v” to my untrained ears) into something I recognize. I keep asking my husband to spell things for me so I can remember them that way (apparently, I retain more information this way–who knew?)

So, I’m having a lovely time with my extended family, but I’m also enjoying the practical lessons in language acquisition. And since my characters often find themselves in places where they do not speak the local language, I want to remember this feeling of curious intrigue–wanting to know more, but wanting to figure it out for myself.

And Romance isn’t dead…

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Since I spent lat time explaining my definition of “cheesy,” I thought Id’ spend some time today with the rest of my descriptor for my book–romance. Yes, my book is a romance–but in more ways than the traditional character A sees character B across a dimly lit room, Bam!, the sun comes out, the world makes sense, the birds are singing all day long–even while they fight off the villain together–and they ride off into the sunset together. Yeah, I’m a sucker for that kind of romance.

But I spend my days talking about the rest of romance, the part that writers seem to have left in the bowels of history. In literature, Romance means a story written in a Roman language–and for most of history, that means Latin (eventually, Latin will spawn the romance languages–French, Spanish, and Italian). So, a romance is a story that those crazy Roman invaders would bring with them, sharing the tales of adventure in their native tongue. Those stories are awesome, and so of course people started to retell them to all of their friends–some of whom did not understand Latin. So those tales were translated into Old English and French–and then the French started to compose their own stories–and suddenly there is a group of stories classified as romance that may or may not involve happy couples kissing and/or swearing eternal devotion to one another.

These stories, often called medieval romances, usually involve an adventure of some kind, a quest or journey where the protagonist has to accomplish a goal (sometimes the rescue of the classic damsel in distress but not always). Often there is an supernatural element, usually they take place in locations with faraway exotic names (for the listeners, that is), and sometimes the protagonist gets married at the end. People still call them romances, though, since they are derived from those old Roman stories that were translated from Latin.

The French take this genre by storm, embellishing that old story about a warrior named Arthur with an entire world–Camelot, Excalibur, the English Queen who is seduced by a French knight who uses his lance, a lot. Did I mention that this was right after the Norman Invasion when the French conquered England, claimed their land, and spent the next few hundred years changing their language? (Take that, England! Your English King loses his Queen to a sexy French chevalier!). That aside, these are the romances that endure, and they generally break up into four different categories or what we English majors call Matters:

The Matter of Rome includes any stories that deal with Roman or Greek elements (Trojan war, Greek gods, etc.).

The Matter of England includes any stories that deal with King Arthur (Camelot, Excalibur, Holy Grail, Fisher King, etc.).

The Matter of Britain includes any stories that deal with English knights who aren’t connected to King Arthur (King Horn, Havelock the Dane, Gamelyn, Robin Hood, etc.).

The Matter of France includes any stories that deal with Charlemagne and his paladins (Roland, Oliver, Bayard, etc.).

Some of these stories involve a sunset backed passionate kiss; some do not. But all are romances.

Remember reading The Scarlet Letter in high school? It’s subtitled: a romance. Why would Hawthorne do that? According to his definition, his story includes an adventure (mostly psychological) set in an exotic location (Puritan New England, a place as foreign to Hawthorne’s 1800s than it is to modern readers) with a hint of the supernatural (mysterious letters in the sky, Pearl as demon-child, etc.). Yes, the story is about two people who got it on, but it is as far from a contemporary romance as you can get (spoiler alert: they don’t live happily ever after).

So, history lesson on romance over. The next time someone dismisses a romance novel as a waste of time, remind them that romances have a long and hefty literary history that involves many twists and turns.

I write cheesy romance novels: adventure, excitement, supernatural, and yes, some kissing.

On “Cheesy” Romances

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When people ask what type of stories I write, I often tell them I prefer “cheesy” romances, and I mean this in the modern sense of the words.

Cheesy, of course, is my adjective of choice, showing that my writing is like cheese, those thick, gooey, satisfying layers of flavor that enhance whatever they are draped across. Cheesy also shows that my writing isn’t meant to be an entire meal; it’s a snack, something to tease the senses and delight the mind, but without the necessary depth and breadth that make up a meal. Even a cheese plate in a fancy restaurant is not meant as a full meal–it’s a nice touch, a great chance to sample different textures and flavors, but it’s not meant to replace the grand affair that is the entree.

What I mean when I describe my work as cheesy is that my stories are not the Great American Novel–and that’s ok. The English teacher in me knows that literature, great literature, often reveals some fundamental truth about what it means to be human–and I think my stories skim the surface of that goal, revealing depths beneath the ice but not quite dunking the reader into the murky symbolic depths.

I spend my days reading, teaching, and discussing literary works. I know what it feels like to have an author smack you over the head with theories about life. And I enjoy those moments. Sometimes. I love the feeling of diving into the wreck, as Adrienne Rich so aptly describes, unraveling the secrets and squinting into the spaces between images. But I also appreciate not getting dunked into watery chasms of biographical significance and cultural commentary, especially after a long day spend showing my students the way with a spare SCUBA tank and a flashlight. Sometimes I just want to waterski across the surface of the work, to quote Billy Collins. I want to read without work, without careful attention to detail and nuance. I want to stand under the shower of words and let them pour over me, sliding across my skin without having to chase them, corral them into sense and convert them into meaning. And on those days, at those moments, cheesy romance is my escape. I can meet new people and watch them do new and exciting things and not have to focus on what the blue curtains really mean. Yes, sometimes I find those meanings without meaning to (once an English major, always an English major), but I like not feeling pressured to find them, to decipher the hidden symbols and unearth the subtext.

So when I write, I create the stories that I want to read when I’m tired of reading into every little thing. My tales are snacks, refreshing glances into new worlds with different people, and if they do have some universal truth lurking within, it’s generally the effect of storytelling at large rather than a conscious effort to make the story mean something significant.  And so my stories are always cheesy.

There are plenty of entrees out there; go out and enjoy them. Inhale them, savor each bite, study each sentence and dissect each word for its meaning. Literature is vast and powerful and worthwhile.

But when you need a break from that level of focus, when you just want a quick snack that’s satisfying the need for a story, check out some cheese. You deserve it.