Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Grammar Geekfest or On Having an Omniscient Aneurysm

First of all, I have to totally disagree with Bob when he suggests that there is no authority on _how_ to write. I'm so sorry, but this is one of my biggest bugaboos. I actually got myself kicked out of a writer's critique group for insisting that a sentence is comprised of a subject and a fucking verb. (Not just any verb, mind you, but a fucking one.)

LISTEN: writing is the act of making order out of chaos. I am the Word, ya dig? Order needs laws. Laws must be obeyed – (mostly.)

Traffic laws exist so that people don't ram into each other at seventy-five miles an hour most of the time (people still do, even when they're obeying the law). I will concede that it is possible that without any laws of any kind the universe might not descend into utter chaos. But why ask for trouble?

Bob, I applaud your efforts in taking on Strunk & White (E.B. White, btw, author of Charlotte's Web and the Stuart Little books), but if someone is setting out on the writing journey for the first time, Strunk & White's Elements of Style makes an excellent road map. I never really understood the concept of passive voice until I read Elements. Plus, their examples are funny, not punitive -- unlike, say, most English grammar textbooks. I found them eminently readable. For this alone, I think they are laudable. They made, for me, at least, relearning basic English grammar tolerable, if not actually sort of amusing.

Granted, I still don't understand how to use commas. And anyone looking at my writing as it appears here (and in my professional work) could rightly quibble about my actual grasp on the English language. Clearly, I love the parenthetical phrase over much. However, I try to – at least in my professional writing – write in a way that is understandable to the vast majority of my readers. In order to do that, I use sentence structures that include a subject and (when writing fiction particularly) an active (fucking!) verb. I use omniscient point of view in the way it is most easily understood, which is with an outside narrator who is acting the part of the god's eye view, who is telling a story with insider knowledge, like you might in a fairy tale or a myth. I use words in their form most recognized by the largest percentage of readers -- which is to say I'd prefer to say "ominous" over "portentous" given that most readers recognize the first over the second, unless the plot or style requires one word over the other.

The goal here for me is to be read and understood. And preferably, I'd like to be read by the largest number of readers. Let's just say millions – hell, go all Dan Brown and say tens of millions.

Tens of millions of people aren't going to "get" me if I go all kung fu stylistic on them. If I decide not to use commas most editors are going to assume I'm stupid, not artistic. If I tell them I think Strunk & White is full of crap and I'm going to write however I want, they're likely to say, "Great, except no one understands a flaming word you've written."

I want to be understood. I think great writing is all _about_ being understood. If I can make you, who is so very different than me, understand who I am and where I'm coming from (or even just what I experienced yesterday), then I've performed the miracle of great writing.


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