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!