April 30, 2011

Introducing: Grammar Girl

So I've been grading papers again. This involves sitting at my desk, writing sloppily, and trying to find the fewest number of words with which to dispense grammar advice. While making my notes, I realized that I'd spelled 'necessary' wrong on one of my student's papers. Which means I probably spelled it wrong on several papers. Yikes!

After several years spent teaching/practicing/reading about/working in the field of writing and editing, I like to consider myself fairly hip to grammar conventions. Sure, I get confused about the subtle, sometimes maddening differences between Australian and American spelling, but otherwise I like to think of myself as a kind of grammar good Samaritan, arming young minds with good writing guidelines that will hold them in good stead for the rest of their lives. They expect me to be an expert on such things. But that's the thing. I'm not an expert. And in my opinion, 99.9% of the people who profess to be 'grammar experts' are lying.

Grammar conventions aren't static things. They are constantly changing depending on the year, the country you're in, the style guide you're using, and the audience you're writing for. Sometimes, like in the case of 'e-mail' vs 'email', spelling and grammar depends on what mood you're in and what feels 'right' to you. The slippery nature of our shifting language is what scares people into thinking they'll never be any good at writing.

I spent several hours the other day trying to figure out what the 'proper' rule on using quotation marks is in Australia (Do we use " or ' for direct quotation? Do we put commas inside or outside the quote mark?). My students' lecture and textbooks couldn't seem to come to any unanimous conclusion, so I tried looking online. Same deal. In desperation, I leafed through all of the books in my bookshelf purchased in Australia. There was no way to tell. And yet a student of mine was told my an editor that "In Australia, we don't USE double quotation marks for dialogue". And all I can think is: as long as it's not distracting to the reader... who cares?

Some people get way too caught up on what's 'correct' when the truth is that we're mostly talking guidelines here, not strict rules. The whole point of teaching grammar and syntax is to help people tell the stories they want to tell, not to try and keep them out of some made-up writing elite.

So I've decided that every time I discover something new and useful (and maybe even interesting) about grammar, I'm going to blog about it. So for those of you who are still awake and reading, here you go:

until vs. till/'til/til: is there a 'right' way to bastardize the word 'until'?

Rule: Apparently, till was a word long before until started being used. It isn't actually a shortening of until, but another word entirely. If you're trying to create a contraction of the word until, the logical choice is to use 'til (as apostrophes take the place of missing letters). That said, till is still commonly used in similar situations and, more rarely, so is til.

Verdict: Any one will do, but if you're creating a contraction, 'til is the most 'proper'.

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