[This is a guest post by Roy Peter Clark. He was indirectly quoted in "Flacks and hacks and brainscans" (11/23/2007), but the "analysis and criticism" that he mentions can be found in "Slippery glamour" (7/4/2008), "Don't tell Sister Catherine William" (7/5/2008), and "Funky a" (7/7/2008). I admire him for being such a good sport about the whole thing, and I urge readers to respond to his invitation to read his new book and to comment "thumbs up, thumbs down, or thumbs sideways". Substantively and politely, of course.]
About two years ago, my work became the subject of analysis and criticism on Language Log. At the time I was not familiar with this community of language experts and students and was not prepared for what was about to happen. Under a category of comments called “Prescriptivist Poppycock” (gotta love the alliteration), I read folks who questioned my scholarship, my credentials, and my writing. I am not complaining about this. I would like to describe what happened and how I responded to it.
In brief, the criticism, some of it harsh and uninformed, helped me straighten out some crooked thinking about language, a process that resulted in the recent publication by Little, Brown of my book “The Glamour of Grammar: A Guide to the Magic and Mystery of Practical English.” On August 22, Ammon Shea gave the book high marks in the New York Times Book Review, calling it “very much a manual for the 21st century.”
I write this on Language Log not to tell you that my success has proved some of your commentary off the mark. Quite the contrary, I have often said now to friends and colleagues that had I not been roughed up by the Language Loggers, I could not have developed the muscle tone to write the book.
Let me explain how all this came to pass.
I once heard an interview with a famous songwriter who was asked “What comes first, the lyrics or the melody.” To which he responded: “What comes first is the phone call.” My “phone call” came from a Little, Brown editor, Tracy Behar, who had worked with me on a previous book “Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer.” Published in 2006, more than 75,000 copies are in print, a success that Tracy wanted to turn into a sequel. “Would you consider writing a book about grammar?” The answer was no, until they offered an advance, and then the answer was yes “As long as you let me define ‘grammar’ as broadly as possible.”
My idea was to write and publish about a dozen pieces on “rhetorical grammar” on the Poynter Institute website, an influential source for journalists and other writers. My goal was to 1) to work out in print what we would mean by grammar; 2) to understand what I knew and what I needed to learn; 3) to find a “voice” that was congenial and curious, more the eager student than the pedantic teacher.
Later, a young friend of mine, Jason Fry, an expert on online news, argued that it was not a good idea to write and publish on the web material that was not fully cooked. I would not be judged by my eager transparency, he said, but by my mistakes, assumptions, and miscalculations. He was right. Someone, perhaps it was Mark, sent me a message that my essays were being discussed on Language Log. I’ll be the first to admit, that the work you saw back then was not fully cooked. In fact, it was half-baked.
By then, the water was a little too bloody to stick my hand in (saw the movie “Piranha” yesterday – in 3D). In spite of my silence, I read all the comments, took them seriously, and used them to draft a personal plan of research and writing. I learned what I could write about language with confidence, as well as areas I should avoid.
As a result of this experience, I had little hope that the book would be a critical success and the glowing review in the NYTBR came as a complete surprise. Because of it, Little, Brown went into a second printing, less than two weeks before the book was first released. Here are the lessons I learned from my encounter with members of this virtual community of language thinkers and workers.
- The Internet is not a pleasant little garden. There are more snakes than robins, and no writer should enter without being prepared to be handled roughly, at times venomously.
- If you are willing to venture in you can learn an awful lot, including from commentators who are, at times, uncivil or worse.
- When you comment on a person’s work, especially when he or she is not part of the conversation, it’s good to envision that person a real and not virtual – as someone who you might run into the next day on the cafeteria line.
- In an area as vast as language, there are many so-called discourse communities that sometimes express themselves as factions: linguists, poets, journalists, deconstructionists, semanticists, composition teachers, prescriptivists, descriptivists, free lancers, and many more. All pilgrims should be prepared to encounter reflexive misunderstanding of their motives, values, and intentions.
Finally, I am not suggesting for an instant that the revisions you would find in Glamour of Grammar from two years ago would meet the highest standards of this group. So I invite anyone to get a copy, and offer a summary, review, or critique. Thumbs up or thumbs down or thumbs sideways, I promise to respond in a spirit of collegiality and with a shared passion for language, literature, and the craft of writing.
[The above is a guest post by Roy Peter Clark, who has taught writing at The Poynter Institute for more than 30 years. He has a Ph.D. in English from Stony Brook University, where he wrote his dissertation “Chaucer and Medieval Scatology,” which his advisor, Don Fry, often mis-describes as “Farting in the Middle Ages.” He has written two books for Little, Brown and is completing a third: “Help! For Writers: A Lifeline, not a Deadline.”]