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A Literary & Poetry Column
By Carolyn Howard-Johnson

Carolyn's Philosophy: 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 only coincidence.

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.

An 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!

When 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.

Zero-tolerance 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.

A 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!

The 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.

Tips and Tidbits

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.

Writers' 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
ISBN: 978-0-978515874

The Well-Fed Self-Publisher: How to Turn One Book into a Full-Time Living by Peter Bowerman
Fanove Publishing
ISBN: 0-9670598-6-0

A Book is Born: 24 Authors Tell All by Nancy C. Cleary
Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishing
ISBN: 978-1-932279-50-4

Calling All Authors: How to Publish with Your Eyes Wide Open by Valerie Connelly
Nightengale Press
ISBN: 1-933449-43-8

The Writer Within You: A Step-by-Step Guide to Writing and Publishing in Your Retirement Years by Charles Jacobs
Caros Books
ISBN: 978-0-9793636-0-3

The Author's Guide to Planning Book Events by Carol Hoenig

2007 Past Columns

English Is Great When It's Good and Great When It's Rotten

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