English Is Great When It's Good and Great When It's Rotten
When I was young, my parents pooh poohed
the idea that there could be life on Mars or that there might be
sentient beings other than ourselves. And fate, well, it was all
Times are different now. We know that we
don't know everything. We're more likely to admit we're superstitious.
We're more likely to admit we're wrong. And it appears that even
includes our attitudes about English.
And speaking of coincidences, I've been shaking
my head at how English has become a hot topic, a much published
subject. And much read. It's seems to be in the ozone (or lack of
it). In the ether! In the oxygen we breathe.
example is Sister
Bernadette's Barking Dog by Kitty Burns Florey. For years
if anyone mentioned diagramming, people nodded off. Then, for decades,
no one talked about diagramming. Now we have a whole book full of
nostalgia mixed with the basics of diagramming!
I was a junior in high school I had a teacher who dyed her black
and didn't hesitate to mark our diagrams with a red pen until we'd
learned our subjects and verbs. Miss Jones her name was and she
taught that grammar rules were grammar rules. In fact we have a
Miss Jones in our midst now. Her name is Lynn Truss of Eats,
Shoots and Leaves fame.
She's a Brit and she writes zero-tolerance
punctuation rules like nobody's business. That some of them are
different or more stringent than American rules--well people seem
to be reveling in it.
can extend to English as part of our culture, too. When I was first
confronted with the idea that there was no such thing as "substandard
English" in a linguistics class in about 1973, I was appalled.
How could anyone challenge Miss Jones? For years I pretty much never
heard such a radical idea repeated so I lived in relative comfort.
Along came June Casagrande's Grammar
Snobs Are Great Big Meanies.
recent release is Rotten
English, an anthology edited by Dohra Ahmad, a professor
at St. John's University. This book is being used as a text to teach
nonstandard English (a much nicer term than "substandard,"
don't you think?) and vernacular literature (a term I could fall
in love with!).
Rotten English is full of, well
. . . rotten English. But then Robert Burns's dialect has come to
be studied in English lit classes and Rudyard Kipling is admired
even if he does say "cheaper than them uniforms" in his
poem, "Tommy." Rotten English also includes deadly English
in a short story by Thomas Wolfe, and we all know what Mark Twain
could do with dialogue and narrative voice (Ahmad includes his "The
Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" in her book).
She also includes short stories, excerpts from novels, poems, and
pieces that use slang, Creole, patois, pidgin and just about any
other variation of our language you can think of.
Funny, but now I welcome these books. Is
it coincidence or is fate conspiring against me? How could I be
excited about this trend after I just released a zero-tolerance
book of my own, The Frugal Editor: Put Your Best Book Forward
to Avoid Humiliation and Ensure Success? Didn't I slave for
two years to write it hoping to attract people who appreciate a
perfectly constructed rule when they see one? Have I turned against
my years of work? Don't I want this book to be purchased by thousands
of writers so they can get their work past all the gatekeepers of
literature, people like contest judges, agents, producers, editors,
and publishers (many of whom are, in fact, grammar snobs)?
Well, yeah, I do!
Frugal Editor just won USA Book News Best Book in the category
of writing and publishing. That's gratifying because someone obviously
shares my view that writers need the information in it. And, though
I write to help get authors' work accepted, I'm also glad to know
that times are changing, that there is room for other views and
other ways of writing. I even included a disclaimer in The Frugal
Editor. No book—however well edited— is perfect.
No rule is sacrosanct. We do need to know the rules, though, so
we know when to break them, and the time to break them is not when
we're trying to get published, win a contest or, for that matter,
get a job.
Still, isn't the word "tolerance"
wonderful? It seems we've come to understand that knowing "correct"
English is a good thing but that other kinds of English are beautiful
and entertaining and interesting, too. There suddenly seems to be
room for learning English in different ways, viewing it from different
angels. Maybe we've finally gotten to the point of acceptance. If
that's so then we are truly better writers and better readers, too.
Each month in this box, Carolyn lists
a writing or promotion tidbit that will help authors and a
tip to help readers find a treasure among long-neglected books
or a sapphire among the newly-published.
Tidbit: Writers' Tidbit: I strongly recommend all
of the newly announced winners of USA Book News' Best Books
in Writing Publishing. No writers shelf is complete with just
one book on any aspect of her craft. (-: Here they are:
The Frugal Editor: Put Your Best Book Forward to Avoid
Humiliation and Ensure Success by Carolyn Howard-Johnson
Red Engine Press
The Well-Fed Self-Publisher: How to Turn One Book into
a Full-Time Living by Peter Bowerman
A Book is Born: 24 Authors Tell All by Nancy C. Cleary
Calling All Authors: How to Publish with Your Eyes Wide
Open by Valerie Connelly
The Writer Within You: A Step-by-Step Guide to Writing
and Publishing in Your Retirement Years by Charles Jacobs
The Author's Guide to Planning Book Events by Carol
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