September 23, 2010

Sparing the grammatical rod

Writing the previous screed about the present tense (with a side screed about the second person), it occurred to me that the informal essay is often written in the second person, present tense. Maybe because Americans could never get the hang of "one" as a pronoun.

And there's nothing wrong with that. It works perfectly well. It's very American, the opposite of the "royal we." Call it the "plebeian you." The southern dialect could be more accurate in this case: it's not "you, personally," it's "all y'all."

Mulling over a few other acceptable degradations of "proper" English grammar:

• "You" in the second person has been joined by "they" in the third as a dual-purpose, singular/plural, gender-neutral pronoun. Fine with me, and definitely better than the politically correct "he and/or she" kludges (though given a little thought, they're not difficult to avoid).

• The subjunctive. It's dead, Jim. Except when it just comes out without really thinking about it because, you know, it sounds right.

• "X and I" in the objective case. I usually don't care, though if I'm the copy editor, I will correct it. A similar quandary--albeit one that only grammarians care about--concerns whether than is a subordinating conjunction (subjective case) or a preposition (objective case). I play this one by ear too.

• Confusing "less" and "fewer." For some reason, this bugs the hell out of me, but it's going the way of the dodo bird, so I might as well resign myself to it.

And a few arcane writerly concerns.

• My approach to omniscience is "whatever works," though once you've chosen a voice, please stick to it and don't change the person without some sort of flag. Head-hopping is not allowed.

Personally, I write better under the discipline of limited omniscience with a small number of POV characters. Third person, limited omniscience with one POV character impresses me the most when done well (Shadow of the Moon by Fuyumi Ono is a good example). But I'm fine with cinematic POV too.

• The second person voice in third person narratives. Even though it is arguably more "natural," (the way Peter Falk switches back and forth between second and third person in Princess Bride), I can't abide it as the editor.

I think it was while editing The Path of Dreams that Beth Bentley at Parables convinced me that third-person narration should not slip into second person unless flagged in the text, usually by italics, or by breaking the fourth wall (dangerous, that).

Now I'm a rabid convert. So if I'm wielding the blue pencil, I will insist that the narrative voice be consistent.

Hey, I ended on a subjunctive!

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# posted by Blogger Katya
Actually, singular "they" has been around for hundreds of years (cite) and the OED's first citation of "less" with count nouns is from the 9th century, so if either is a "degradation of proper English grammar" (acceptable or otherwise), then proper English grammar must date to about a millennium ago.
9/23/2010 1:06 PM

# posted by Blogger Eugene
The "proper" should be in quotes.

In most cases, I side with the descriptivists rather than with the prescriptivists. But as with morality and propriety, directly beneath the surface, the question turns out to be more about what is "acceptable" than what is "right."

And once confused, logic can rarely disentangle the two.

A good part of this is pure pragmatics. Human language is a living machine that constantly accumulates RFCs and periodically churns out "standards," a standard being determined "democratically" by common use, and/or by designated "gatekeepers."

In some languages, governments take on the gatekeeping role. Not so much in English, where the job tends to be assumed (often presumptively) by editors and lexicographers (and professors of English, though they don't have that much actual influence).

In any case, using "less" with count nouns still bugs me aesthetically.
9/23/2010 3:31 PM

# posted by Blogger Kate Woodbury
I've never been able to get the hang of the purely omniscient narrator who hangs over the action god-like, dipping into people's heads at whim. I'd like to--it's how I *think* about my characters.

But unless the omniscient point of view is done correctly, it just sounds confused. This is why Jane Austen wannabes (of whom I am one) who attempt her style (which I do not) almost always fail.

I think you really had to be born into the 18th/19th century to get it totally right. I've been thinking lately about how 18th/19th century novelists were supplying all the different wants that today we get through video games and television as well as through books. So Dickens and Twain, etc. had to be all things to all people. And one thing they were is the camera.

Except now that we live in the age of the camera, being the camera seems more like television's job. The writer is supposed to tell us about the individual--we have other mediums to provide us with omniscience!

Caveat: I do realize that writers are not "supposed" to do anything. Except reach their audience.
9/25/2010 7:57 AM