The Art of Writing and the Value of Grammar

Apr 20, 2012

If you’ve ever driven down the highway and spotted a sign with a misplaced apostrophe or seen syntax so teeth-grindingly bad you almost ran off the road, then this next commentary will be music to your ears.  Darlene Mazzone tells us that, for her, writing is every bit the art form, one all the more beautiful when the grammar is good.

Call me old. NO WAIT, do not call me old.

Call me a grammatical geek . . . or a literary luddite. Call me a wordsmith who chooses to use the purest linguistic alloys.

I give you permission to call me names because I am appalled at the destruction I see by way of the murder in the first degree of our once noble language.

First book recommendation: Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation.

The title of the book is an amphibology—a verbal fallacy arising from an ambiguous grammatical construction—and derived from a joke on bad punctuation. To wit:

A panda walks into a cafe. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and proceeds to fire at the other patrons.

“Why?” asks the surviving waiter amidst the carnage, as the panda makes towards the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder.

“Well, I’m a panda,” he says, at the door. “Look it up.”

The waiter turns to the relevant entry in the manual and, sure enough, finds an explanation. “Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.”

The author touches on varied aspects of the history of punctuation and includes many anecdotes, which add another dimension to her explanation of grammatical rules. In the book’s final chapter, she opines on the importance of maintaining punctuation rules and addresses the damaging effects of e-mail and the Internet on language.

I can see eyes rolling as I speak. Trust me, it’s not your fifth grade grammar guide. It’s a witty, funny, yet salient commentary on how we communicate—or not.

I have one associate who never capitalizes ANYTHING in his attempts to send me a coherent email. I have one who separates his thoughts with a series of dots in every email. And then there are the ubiquitous airwave abbreviations being employed by those who choose to limit their cogent expressions to no more than 140 characters.

Second book recommendation: Strictly Speaking by Edwin Newman.

OK, now you can call me old. Mr. Newman was my journalistic hero when I was but a young girl in the throes of those heady days here at MSU. We were all setting out to make our mark on the (well-written) pages of history as journalism students. Mr. Newman would no doubt be spinning in a virtual vortex in his grave if he could see the devastation being wrought upon his beloved English language.

When Newman published his bestseller Strictly Speaking, a blurb on the back cover quoted a reviewer who described the erudite author as “a glass of chilled wine awash in a sea of tepid Tab.”

His book made even the careful writer to stop and THINK about what cliches he was writing—granted a difficult task for a newsperson on deadline or even a journalist with time to spare.

I emphasize THINKING in the previous comments because it’s partly our race to the finish line these days which engenders the rampant dismissal of all things grammatically correct.

When the typewriter was invented, and we no longer had to labor with quill and ink over parchment, did we abandon all adherence to careful construction and artful composition simply because the words came faster?

Just because we’re using a new mode of transmittal does NOT preclude us from the ability to fashion ACTUAL sentences which provide clarity, meaning, and dare I say, INTERESTING and captivating conversation on our pages/screens/phones/pads or whatever receptacles we may be employing at the time.

When we, as journalism students, were encouraged to write with abandon, it did not mean to abandon ALL the conventions which makes language understandable and eloquent. I take some liberties at times. It’s part of the ART of writing.

But, consider this. In the words of the Dalai Lama, “Know the rules well, so you can break them effectively."

Darlene Mazzone is president of Mazzone Communications in Paducah.  Opinions expressed in commentaries don’t necessarily reflect those of WKMS.