Grammar Nazis, You’re Missing the Best Parts…

I love the English language, in a way that I don’t think most people really appreciate.  I love it for its weirdness, for its tricky rules and for how you can learn the basics fairly quickly, but it will literally take a lifetime to truly understand.  For me, that pursuit is 25 or so years old — I’ve been studying English longer than I can remember.  Funk & White spoke to me, “On Writing” made me weep, I have particular affection for the Merriam-Webster Dictionary.

I love this language, but I also am beginning to really get to know it in these fast-moving times.  It’s not what you think.  At least not what most people think.  The best part about English is how little most people really get it.  It’s like a secret code that few can legitimately decode.  And that’s what I want to talk about today.  Loving the language for what it truly is.

There Are Many Englishes

As a writer, you have to understand one thing — it’s fundamental: you can’t master English.  It’s a beast that can’t be tamed, it can’t be chained and it can’t be held still.  Between the various dialects and legitimate language spin-offs (like Ebonics, which is recognized as a distinct variety of English, Spanglish and even American English), there is so much more to English than you can possibly imagine.

That being said, there are still an awful lot of you who believe in a single standard version of a language that is, in essence, a living thing.  You balked when the Oxford English Dictionary added the word “Interweb” as an entry in 2015.  You freaked when text-speak started creeping into legitimate use.  You, my friend, are about to hit a wall and hit it hard.

I’m not even going to try to count the number of dialects of English that Wikipedia mentions, but it’s a hell of a lot.  English is currently the most widespread language on Earth, if not also the most frequently spoken.  And it’s come a very long way from what we think of as Old English to the form we generally use today.  I could elaborate on this, but I think this video does a much better job than I could:


Learning to Allow English to Flex is the First Step

I assumed you watched my video, but if you didn’t, it outlined the changes and progression of English throughout its long history in just 10 short minutes.  If nothing else, I hope you now realize how silly it is to try to freeze a language that’s ever-changing.  Latin, for example, is a language you can harness and find comfort in for its consistency and unchanging nature — but it’s also a dead language.  That’s actually what kills a language, you know.  Not changing.

English is something else.  It’s one of the most difficult languages in the world to learn because of all the words that don’t make any sense within the basic framework, it’s a linguistic puzzle.  I’m pretty sure English teachers are the worst about pushing the stereotype that English is a thing you can hold in your hands.  It’s not.  It’s a maddeningly changing and shifting thing.

I see it day in and day out on the web.  People who bitch and moan about other people not using the language properly when they (the bitchy whiners) are clinging to archaic forms of the language no longer in use.  I want to smash those people upside the head with a brick.  I want to check them for capacitors because I’m pretty damn sure they’re robots.

OMG, someone wrote OMG!  That’s not a word!  

Actually, it is.  Now.  You know why?  Because English is cool like that.  English is constantly growing and changing.

English is the most democratic force on the planet.  It exists and changes because we want it to — as a group.  New words come into use because we use them.  Old words fall out of favor because we’re sick of them.  English follows fashions, English loves a good trend, but some of that stuff sticks… some of it carries on.  As we change the language, it also changes us.

This is my tribute to the English language.  I love it.  I love it like a shifting sand.  I love it like a blowing wind.  I love it like a rippling tide that can’t be stopped.  I love it for all it is, I love it for all it isn’t.  I love it for the freedom it gives me.  I love it for letting me hold on to my heritage while still connecting with others who are very different from me.

Go, English, go.

English is Awful: A Brief History of Modern English Punctuation

ancient Greek writing chiseled on stoneAs with other confusing bits of our language and culture, punctuation got its start with the ancient Greeks.  Those bastards took a language that was once written without a single break (see that photo on the left) and started complicating things.  Instead of leaving language simple, they had to go and accidentally invent punctuation.

See, these guys were really into writing and giving speeches — it was, in fact, the mark of a gentleman and a scholar.  If you weren’t a decent orator, you were a failure as a man.  So, no pressure there.  This obsession with giving the perfect speech led these guys to begin using a series of dots to indicate where a speaker should pause in the speech and for how long.  Thanks to these ancient jerks, we got the period, comma and colon.  Written as a single, double or quadruple set of dots, these eventually evolved into the forms we know today.  That was about all you got in Ancient Greek… so what about the other major players?

Great Exclamations!

Until the invention of moveable type (thank you Johannes Gutenberg), all these Greek dots were mutating and evolving, but not in any consistent way.  Because of the rise of handwritten Bibles and their need to be read out loud with some passion, new indicators started to circulate as early as the seventh century, when Irish and Anglo-Saxon scribes added their own touches to ancient Scripture.

Some time during this dark period, the exclamation point was born, the legend goes.  At first, it was written as “io” at the end of sentences, meant to indicate that the sentence was to be read with great admiration or joy (“io” is literally Latin for “joy”).  Over time, the two letters combined to create something similar to the exclamation point we know today, but it wasn’t introduced formally into printing until the 15th century.

Apparently early typewriter manufacturers didn’t think you’d need to show much joy while using their products, though, since they waited until the 1970s to add this key to the standard keyboard.  That probably explains why it’s the only useful piece of punctuation stranded up there with the numbers.

Wait, I Have a Question

The primitive question mark appears in handwritten Bibles at about the same time as the ancient exclamation point, io.  Like io, the question mark is believed to have started out as two letters: qo.  This is Middle Ages shorthand for the Latin quaestio, to question.  Also like with io, qo was originally written side by side, but eventually the q began its ascent up atop the o and the rest was just sloppy handwriting.

By the 13th century, you’d recognize the ancient qo as the question mark we know today, thanks to the efforts of scholars across Western Europe to standardize punctuation usage.  It drove them buggy that there were multiple punctuation systems in use, so they developed a cannon explaining how to do it properly, officially beginning a massive effort to bring punctuation systems into a single style.

Ben Jonson, Shakespeare’s Nemesis

If you’ve ever seen the movie “Shakespeare in Love,” you’ll know the name Ben Jonson.  Those of you who have never seen that movie have to stop reading right now and go watch it.  Ben was ol’ Will’s nemesis, according to the movie, and there’s some proof that this might have been sort of true in real life.  Ben was a scholar, a poet and a working playwright, just like Willy, but unlike the roguish whore-monger Shakespeare, he held his profession in the highest esteem.  Writing wasn’t just a way for Ben to get girls.

Because of the complicated feelings he had for English, Ben wrote a pompous book attempting to formalize some components of the language in 1640, called “The English Grammar.”  There’s lots of good stuff in this book, actually, but for our purposes, we’re going to skip to the end where he discusses punctuation.  Ben rightfully calls this chapter “Of the Distinction of Sentences,” which is what any good punctuation does, at least in part.

He covers the basics — commas, semi-colons, parenthesis, the colon (“marked with two pricks”), the period (“one full prick”), the question mark and the exclamation point.  In 1640, that was good enough for pretty much everybody.  And for now, it’s good enough for us.  Hash tags and whatnot are covered much more completely in Keith Houston’s book, Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols and Other Typographical Marks.

You can check out Houston’s blog here, though I don’t recommend it unless you want to go down a rabbit hole of punctuation history you can’t really unsee.

Full disclosure:  I bought this book for my Kindle, I’ve not read it, but I’m sure it’s fucking lovely.  How could it not be?

English is Awful: The Introduction

comical poetry cannot stand youEnglish is the language we speak, the language we write and the language that, presumably, is still dominant on the Internet (I couldn’t actually verify that fact, but it was as of 2013).  So, that being said, you gotta stop sometimes and wonder — why the Hell are we still using a language that’s so fucked up?

For most of us, it’s the default language of our country, our families, our communities and because of this, we’ve just sort of gotten used to it and all its idiosyncrasies.  As a professional writer and armchair giver of advice, I decided it was high time that someone addressed some of these things about English that are just awful — so starting next Thursday, March 20, I’ll be running a special piece called “English is Awful.”

Modern English speakers mostly have the British Empire to blame for these nonsensical language rules, since British English started absorbing all sorts of bits of other languages as it slowly crept across the globe.  By 1755, when Samuel Johnson wrote the first formal dictionary, the language was already such a mess that it’d never recover properly.

In fact, part of the reason we needed a dictionary in the first place was to finally formalize and standardize the language.  When there are twelve ways to spell potato, communication can get tricky.  As English-speakers became more literate, it was vital that there was a central authority to govern spelling and meaning of words… so there’s that, too.

… I think that’s why we freak out when words like “twerk” and “LOL” are added to the dictionary.  It means they’re official.  They’re *words*!  English is a messed up language, to be sure, so let me be your guide through the rougher parts of it and maybe, just maybe, we can sort out all the reasons that English is awful.