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Beer: English Grammar and When to Follow the Rules

29 Jul
A wreath Kolsch Beer - LA Times of Kölsch.

Image via Wikipedia

Six years ago Marcus wrote a blog post that presented English grammar “as an envelope of suggestions rather than a tight box of persnickety rules.”  He took his cue from Saul Bellow, who once used “which” when he should (grammatically speaking) have used “that.” As Bellow said, “‘Which’ sounded better than ‘that,’ and I do go by sounds as well as by grammar.”

Tonight we were chatting, and somehow began discussing words that represent no fixed quantity and thus cannot have a singular or plural form.  For example, deer never becomes deers and fish never becomes fishes (except when Three Dog Night sings “Joy to the World.”)

And beer never becomes beers, unless it is explicitly quantified (“I’ll have two beers, please.”) But Marcus didn’t know that because people use “beers” loosely all the time.  Pi Wen strongly argued that you can never use beers without quantifying it, and she was right.

But Marcus argues that actual usage trumps formal rules.  Even if something is not proper it can still be correct.

An analogy–if no drivers observe a stop sign because there is never any traffic on the perpendicular road, are they really doing anything wrong?  Is it the fault of the county for not keeping up with road conditions, or of the drivers for not following the law?  Legally the answer is obvious, but socially it is much less clear. Likewise when grammar does not keep up with widespread usage.

This is a chicken-and-egg argument; should grammar dictate usage or should usage drive grammar?  Really both happen, and the language as a whole remains stable.  Meanwhile we each must decide how much the finer points of English grammar matter to us.

Pi Wen understands Marcus’s point, but she begs to differ. She believes proper grammar should lead usage. Many wrongs do not make a right. EXCEPT, when a writer who knows the rules deliberately breaks them for artistic purposes. As William Safire wrote in the postscript of Blurbosphere, “Good writers are free to break the rules of grammar, but their freedom gains meaning when they know the rules and overrule them only for an artistic or polemical reason.”


Exclamation Point Inflation

1 Jun
A yellow exclamation mark

Image via Wikipedia

Marcus has long modeled his writing after that of Hemingway–laconic, direct, few adverbs and adjectives.  Of course, Ernest had a penchant for excessively masculine topics, a trait that Woody Allen spoofs brilliantly in the wonderful Midnight in Paris.  Marcus doesn’t model himself after Hemingway in that regard, but does like his approach to writing. One thing you hardly ever see with Hemingway is an exclamation point.

Pi Wen’s writing is effusive, warm, and exclamatory. Sometimes there are ALL CAPS, and the exclamation points flow forth. Hemingway it’s not, but that is OK.

Lately Marcus has discovered an influx of exclamation points in his own writing–sometimes even a double exclamation!! Ernest is recoiling in horror, but hopefully Pi Wen likes the trend.  Warm, effusive writing has its place.

(Yes indeed, Pi Wen likes Marcus’s new trend. And now about her effusive, warm writing…)

Pi Wen’s writings are mainly influenced by Chinese authors: 琼瑶, 金庸林语堂徐志摩李白刘墉龙应台; maybe it is cultural, or maybe it’s just a personal preference that Pi Wen loves these authors. These authors are sharp in their analysis, but they write warmly (抒情) and vividly. For example, in 金庸’s epic stories, he described the martial art fighting scenes in vivid imagery and with great gusto. 李白 and 徐志摩 were both famous romantic poets, 李白 was a famous poet in the Tang Dynasty while 徐志摩 rose to fame in the 20th century. No matter, their works have influenced many followers spanning several centuries.

In graduate school, Pi Wen learned to write elaboratively. It helped that her research focus was on categorization (e.g., works by Eleanor Rosch, Larry Barsalou). Later, her work based on George Lakoff‘s Women, fire, and dangerous things heightened her awareness of using metaphors in writing. However, at work Pi Wen needs to write concisely, just like Marcus. TO.THE.POINT. Period.

In fact, these days Pi Wen often writes in bullet points! But she likes it as it’s easier to get the main points across without too many words. And her heart skips a beat if she can add cool designs or photos to the PowerPoint presentation.

Meanwhile, Marcus counts every day that he doesn’t see a PowerPoint presentation as a great blessing!! See, there go those exclamation points again.

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