Evidently today is National Grammar Day. I am not a fan.
Like most Americans of my generation I was taught to identify parts of speech, diagram sentences and intone with the rest of the class the mysteries of the three-and-twenty most holy helping verbs: “is, am, are, was, were, be, being, been, have, has, had, do, did, does, may, must, might, can, could, will, would, shall, should”. Because I was good at it, and felt a call to the service of pedantry, I continued my novitiate in stranger accents, in German, Latin and Greek.
I was well on my path the the priesthood of a grammarian, when in 1992 I abandoned all my vows in a bus in Somerville, Massachusetts, when a drunk showed me what language was really all about.
I’m not one to start a conversation with a stranger — even a sober one — on public transportation. But in this case I had little choice in the matter, since this particular gentleman insisted on initiating a debate on the virtues of the Allman Brothers, a subject which I was neither equipped nor inclined to discuss with him.
When I expressed my disinclination to debate, and further, my ignorance of all things Allman, the dear fellow was offended and let out a string of expletives, starting with “Un-freakin’-believable” (albeit with a more emphatic, saltier interposed participial adjective than I can relate to you here) and continuing for several minutes. Nothing he said was grammatical. Little was even coherent. But what I did understand was pure genius. I wish I had a tape recorder. As my stop approached, I hesitated a moment, intending to thank the man, offer him my congratulations and laud him as a poet of the first order. But the smell, as well as my own instinct for self-preservation, held me in abeyance.
Since that day I have been an apostate to grammar. I think we should all have a range of ways to speak and write, and should be able to modulate according to circumstances. Language is like a wardrobe. A man should have jogging shorts as well as a tuxedo. In the end, language is not about rules. It is about suiting the words to the occasion, of putting the right words in the right places, and what is “right’ will depend on circumstances.
So down with grammar, down with the rules! Go, split an infinitive, dangle your participles, and like my good friend on the #86 bus, even separate your inseparable prefixes. To quote Duke Ellington, “If it sounds good, it is good”. And remember that the goal in the end is expression and understanding. If you are understood, then you’ve accomplished more than many.
As Gertrude Stein wrote:
Clarity is of no importance because nobody listens and nobody knows what you mean no matter what you mean, nor how clearly you mean what you mean. But if you have vitality enough of knowing enough of what you mean, somebody and sometime and sometimes a great many will have to realize that you know what you mean and so they will agree that you mean what you know, what you know you mean, which is as near as anybody can come to understanding anyone.