Rules of Enragement

It’s time to show the grammar police your creative license


Okay, chill. We get it. Every day, you grammar nerds post memes on Facebook or Twitter explaining how you absolutely loathe people who mistake "they're" and "their," decry those who don't use an oxford comma properly, or share lists detailing your top 10 grammar peeves. Social media is a writer’s platform, after all, and these ignoramuses are clumsily stomping all over your stage.

I understand. We're not so different, you and I. I was one of you, up until the point when I took a class (taught by Marymount University's marvelous Bess Fox) in the teaching of composition. My thoughts regarding grammar were fairly rigid, but that class changed me, man. Concepts were introduced that altered my thoughts on language, such as the fact that most people don't actually know all the rules of grammar; rather, they know a few and tend to show off their limited knowledge any moment they can.

But language isn't static; it changes. Slang becomes accepted; technology introduces new forms of communication; expressions in other cultures are assimilated into our own. Yes, there's a beauty to structured language, but there's something wildly exciting in the departure from that structure. For every Hemingway, there is a Faulkner.

I've touched on this before, but if you love language, then you should have an inherent love for its subversion. My chosen genre of crime fiction has always taken advantage of broken language. And literature would be lessened without the street-sweetened slang that’s spent so many years lurking in its shadows.

I hope that this essay doesn’t read as a defense of anti-intellectualism. It’s important to understand the laws that a society follows, even (perhaps especially) if those laws are followed blindly. But the loveliness of broken language is often discovered by those who don’t know those rules, and not always by those who study the rules and choose to ignore them.

I could write about this forever, but someone has already managed to beautifully convey this argument in fiction. Tobias Wolff's short story, "Bullet in the Brain," involves a literary critic named Anders who's waiting in line at a bank when robbers burst in. The critic's actions (SPOILER) result in him getting shot. As he dies, the reader is introduced to the significant moments of his life that left him a miserable curmudgeon; a critic who “began to regard the heap of books on his desk with boredom and dread” and “grew angry at writers for writing them."

Cheerful guy, right? But this is his memory before he passes away–one afternoon at a pick-up baseball game (excerpted):

"Then the last two boys arrive, Coyle and a cousin of his from Mississippi. Anders has never met Coyle's cousin before and will never see him again. He says hi with the rest but takes no further notice of him until they've chosen sides and someone asks the cousin what position he wants to play. ‘Shortstop,’ the boy says. ‘Short's the best position they is.’ Anders turns and looks at him. He wants to hear Coyle's cousin repeat what he's just said, but he knows better than to ask. The others will think he's being a jerk, ragging the kid for his grammar. But that isn't it, not at all - it's that Anders is strangely roused, elated, by those final two words, their pure unexpectedness and their music. He takes the field in a trance, repeating them to himself.

The bullet is already in the brain; it won't be outrun forever, or charmed to a halt. In the end it will do its work and leave the troubled skull behind, dragging its comet's tail of memory and hope and talent and love into the marble hall of commerce. That can't be helped. But for now Anders can still make time. Time for the shadows to lengthen on the grass, time for the tethered dog to bark at the flying ball, time for the boy in right field to smack his sweat-blackened mitt and softly chant, They is, they is, they is.”

[Editor’s note: E.A. Aymar is dead to us.]

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