The Glamour of Grammar

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[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.”]


  1. Roy Peter Clark said,

    August 31, 2010 @ 1:34 pm

    Thank you, Mark, for posting this message to the group. If any member of the Language Log would like to communicate directly with me for any purpose, my email is The Poynter Institute, for the curious, has been around for some 35 years. We are a non-profit school for journalists. We own the stock of the St. Petersburg Times, a newspaper that won two Pulitzers in 2009. Our home base is a beautiful building on the harbor in St. Petersburg, Florida. Cheers.

  2. richard howland-bolton said,

    August 31, 2010 @ 1:40 pm

    I wonder what is is about farting that so attracts mediaevalists. Years ago I remember being involved in a long and scholarly on-line discussion on the subject of "vernal flatulence among members of the Cervidae" occasioned by the Sumer Canon.

  3. language hat said,

    August 31, 2010 @ 3:24 pm

    I read Shea's review, and was nodding along happily until I got to this part:

    Yet for all Clark’s railing, he’s not above sharing some of the complaints and foibles of the “grammazons,” as he calls the cantankerous set. He’s against the use of “literal” as a “general intensifier,” for instance, saying it’s a “distraction,” something that “makes me doubt the messenger” — even though this usage has been common practice for well over a century. Mark Twain describes Tom Sawyer as “literally rolling in wealth” after Tom persuades the neighborhood children to help whitewash his fence, even though Twain makes no mention of his character’s physically rolling in ill-gotten gains.

    Clark also has odd notions about the Oxford English Dictionary, calling it a schoolmarmish and Victorian work, one with no room for the naughty parts of English — yet the four-letter words have been comprehensively cataloged in the dictionary since the 1970s, and more obscure terms like “testiculose” (defined rather delicately via a citation from an earlier dictionary: “that hath great cods”) have been included from the start. And he makes the ill-advised choice of citing the Web site Urban Dictionary, one of the least reliable online sources for things linguistic, in pinpointing the earliest use of a word. (There’s a difference between a relaxed approach and one that’s positively slack.)

    This made me realize that the book, while apparently far less prescriptive than previous pop-grammar books have tended to be, was not one I could recommend to anyone. (Seriously, citing Urban Dictionary as a reference? That's like asking the first guy you meet in the local bar.)

  4. language hat said,

    August 31, 2010 @ 3:25 pm

    Oh, and here's a link to Shea's review, if anyone is curious.

  5. Jon W said,

    August 31, 2010 @ 3:44 pm

    Roy — Stephen Sondheim, in *Merrily We Roll Along* (1981), uses: "Which comes first generally — the words or the music?" / "Generally, the contract." The line is unlikely to be original to Sondheim, though; essentially the same line was attributed to both Irving Caesar and Ira Gershwin.

  6. Ellen K said,

    August 31, 2010 @ 7:33 pm

    I can't see what's wrong with using Urban Dictionary for citing early usage of a word. In doing so, one is not using it as a scholarly source. It's like quoting usage in a novel, a newspaper, a letter, etc.

    I also find the Urban Dictionary quite useful for finding the meaning of words that haven't made it into the regular dictionaries, and it's usually pretty easy to figure out which entries provide the (or a) real meaning of the word and which are for entertainment purposes only.

  7. Brian said,

    August 31, 2010 @ 8:17 pm

    It's not quite the same as citing a novel. All too often people post entries to the Urban Dictionary with the express purpose of attempting to rapidly invent a new word. Also I've occasionally seen entries that were almost certainly bullshit, presumably attempts to muddy the waters for other people.

  8. Debbie said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 12:00 am

    FWIW, Urban Dictionary, IMHO, is useful in understanding internet acronyms so that your responses don't make you look TSTL!

  9. Martin Ellison said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 3:12 am

    UrbDic is the modern equivalent of A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue
    By Captain Francis Gross, is it not? English as some would want it to be (but is not) about humans as they are (but some might not want them to be).

  10. Nick said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 6:10 am

    I concur with Ellen K. There is nothing wrong with citing Urban Dictionary. In fact, in my lexicography class we are using it a lot for a project. As for people using it to rapidly propagate a pet neologism, so what? I doubt this is ever a very effective method, and even if it were, lexicographers do survey work to gauge actual usage. Anyone criticizing Clark for citing it is out of their mind.

  11. a said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 9:58 am

    UrbDic is the modern equivalent of A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue
    By Captain Francis Gross, is it not? English as some would want it to be (but is not) about humans as they are (but some might not want them to be).

    Except that people actually lie and make things up on urban dictionary, so you never know what is actually true.

  12. Roy Peter Clark said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 10:27 am

    I will admit, at the start, that I did not know, and still do not know what language experts think about the reliability of the Urban Dictionary, although I'm getting some sense from this thread. If memory serves, I cite the UD one time, as opposed to the OED and AHD which get countless references.

    I believe that the word I was tracking down was "trickeration." My spell checker doesn't recognize the word and wants me to change it to transliteration, evisceration, or incineration!

    I know the word "trickeration" as football slang for a very tricky play, sometimes called a "flea-flicker." I imagined that when it was coined the word was someone's "mistake," one that survived as a non-standard version of trickery. I couldn't find the word in any of the standard locations, so I checked the Urban Dictionary.

    It cited the football definition, but also referred me back to a 1931 song recorded by Cab Calloway. The title is "Trickeration" and it refers to a dance popular in Harlem at the time. It gave some of the lyrics, which could be confirmed on a number of free lyrics sites. I could even get it as a ring tone.

    I'll let others argue whether mine was a responsible practice. All I know is that the UD led me to an old use of the word that I knew nothing about.

  13. Mr Punch said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 10:53 am

    @ RHB – I think some people become medievalists because they're attracted to farting, rather than vice versa.

  14. Rodger C said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 11:57 am

    @RHB and Punch: Besides, we all know that a lot of medievalists are a little cuccu.

  15. Don said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 12:34 pm

    In his blog "You Don't Say," John McIntyre wrote an entry of appreciation about The Glamour of Grammar (the entry is called "Feel the power" and was posted on August 26th or so) which I found persuasive and appealing.

  16. groki said,

    September 1, 2010 @ 2:13 pm

    Roy Peter Clark: All pilgrims should be prepared to encounter reflexive misunderstanding of their motives, values, and intentions.

    and ideally, to respond with thoughtful graciousness and good will, as you have.

  17. Ben Hemmens said,

    September 3, 2010 @ 6:37 am

    What I'd like is a Language Log semi-official list of what style and usage guides you find broadly acceptable and which contain such egregious errors that you would recommend not recommending them.

    I'm a translator from German into English (sometimes editor/author/copywriter) of mostly technical and scientific things. Persuading my clients that there is such a thing as clear / plain English style – beyond fixing basic grammar mistakes – which is worth their money is a very important thing for me in a market where a) most of my clients can speak and write quite passable English b) there are plenty of people with proper translating qualifications, whereas my formal qualifications are in natural science and c) there's a tendency to say: our readers speak broken English, we write broken English, so what's the need to polish it up?

    I probably learned what I do by a mixture of some decent teachers at school and university, a bit of Fowler and The Complete Plain Words, and natural talent. Both of the books mentioned are from a bygone era and are hardly suitable for contemporary non-English speakers. Amazon is full of more other books on the subject than I can either shake a stick at or afford to buy and assess myself.

    Books that try to tackle seriously the comparative syntax/pragmatics of English and German are much too heavy going; I'm currently wading through "Übersetzen: Ein Vademecum" by Judith Macheiner, which is fine for me, but anyone who hasn't already devoted considerable thought to the differences in the way sentences and paragraphs work in English and German would be lost with it. So I'd like to be able to point to one or two reasonably accessible guides to English writing just from an English point of view.

    We know Strunk and White, the likes of Eats, Shoots and Leaves and one or two other bêtes noirs have the seal of disapproval. But what do you think of, for example, Martin Cutts' version of Plain English, as in the Oxford Guide?

    The trouble is, in the Amazon reviews, there's always someone who says oh yes, this is positively the best thing since Strunk and White, which kind of ruins things ;-)

  18. James D said,

    September 3, 2010 @ 10:36 am

    Yes, Urban Dictionary is an unreliable source. But cultural historians would be out of a job if they were forbidden to use all unreliable sources. The point is to use it critically. It seems that some people are in danger of transferring prescriptivism and bugbears from language itself to research methods: this is how to kill linguistics as a discipline.

  19. Beating the Bush | Notes said,

    September 3, 2010 @ 2:19 pm

    […] Peter Clark explains how harsh criticism can and should be used constructively. I agree. Rough comments here and […]

  20. Stephen Jones said,

    September 17, 2010 @ 3:03 am

    The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage is excellent and has been recommended here many times.

    Style is a different kettle of fish. Think of an interior decorator as opposed to an architect.

  21. Roy Peter Clark said,

    September 24, 2010 @ 11:07 am

    Ben Hemmens is looking for language books that can serve English and German readers and writers. To my astonishment, a German publisher, Autorenhaus, purchased the rights to translate my book "Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer" into German. Their title is: "Die 50 Werkzeuge fur gutes Schreiben: Handbuch fur Autoren, Journalisten & Texter." It has also been translated into Danish, but the Danes only found 47 of my tools to be relevant.

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