Friday, January 30, 2009

Mortal Syntax, by June Casagrande

There are a few things in this world that I'm guaranteed to love. I believe, medically speaking, you would say I'm a sucker for them. Near the top of the list are post-Apocalyptic movies, but only slightly lower are grammar books.

I don't think I'm particularly a grammar "snob," as Casagrande would say. (However, there is a certain blog written by a girl with whom I went to high school, and in the blog title she, in one fell swoop, demonstrates an inability to both pluralize her last name AND use apostrophes correctly, and as a result I have moved her down my ladder of esteem to a rung just below the bemulletted Confederate-flag-shirt-wearing yokels found in a Wal-Mart parking lot in London, Kentucky at 11:30 on a Tuesday night. But I don't think that makes me a snob; if I were a snob I would link to her blog here, and I won't, so there. (But you can get to her blog with only three clicks from my main blog.))

Past grammar books I've read were written by professional editors, or crusty curmudgeons of writers. Casagrande's credentials, as far as I can tell, are that she needs a job and doesn't mind writing about grammar. Which is fine; again, I'm not being a snob. But I'm used to grammar writers who seem like they've been declensioning in their sleep since they were weened, while Casagrande has several sections that basically start with, "Last year I made this grammar mistake in a major publication." Refreshing honesty, perhaps intended to set the reader at ease, but also possibly undermining her authority. The reader is already going to respond to most "rules" he doesn't already obey by thinking, "Yeah, well, you know, that's just, like, your opinion, man," and since Casagrande is basically saying, "I've made grammar mistakes right up to press-time," it seems easier to mentally dismiss her claims.

Another thing that made this book more difficult to read was the format: each "rule" isn't necessarily something that Casagrande thinks should BE a rule. She gives a usage that the grammar snobs would dislike, and then tells you whether she thinks their opprobrium is warranted. Sometimes that was a few too many negatives to keep track of. But I understand her wanting to come up with a grammar book format that is slightly different from the standard William Safire "these grammar usages piss me off" style.

Casagrande is a cat-lover, which is a strike in my book, but she is also a fan of The Simpsons, and that means she nearly qualifies as a godparent for my children. It seems to me that she too easily dismisses grammar rules that "nobody" is following anymore. I dare say she's the type of person who would allow you to make the name Gonzalez possessive with just an apostrophe, as I once saw in a high school English text shortly before I decided to home school my children. This "is everyone else doing it?" type of grammar Prime Directive is worrisome because there were legitimate reasons for the creation of the grammar rules we've received. Ancient Englishmen didn't invent the verb "to lay" because they thought it would be a funny joke on everyone who would confuse it with "to lie"; they did it because they have two distinct meanings. Most people use them interchangably now, and if you were to say "I had lain on this bed before," most listeners would think you'd temporarily slipped into pig Latin, but when we allow distinct usages to become muddled, we lose some of the versatility of our language. There is a school of thought called language determinism, which argues that the ability your language has to convey particular meanings limits your thinking within only those meanings. Thus Russians, who supposed didn't understand what "constitution" meant during the Decembrist revolt, would not spend a lot of time thinking about a constitution. Allowing grammar usages to blend and die limits the scope of our possible thought. Now, I admit I don't always use "to lie" and "to lay" correctly, but I have a Post-It note reminder of their conjugations on my computer monitor and I'm trying to learn.

If all you want to know is how to get through life without embarrassing yourself when you speak, this book is a useful guide. But if you think rules should have some force behind them aside from "do most people around me think they are useful?", you might find yourself in frequent disagreement with Casagrande.

Rating: 3 out of 7 giant inflatable monkeys.

Post-Script: At no point in my reading did I think Casagrande was anything other than a great person, and now that I've looked around the Internet for a picture of her book cover I can steal for my blog post, I've found her blog and read about how she had been hurt by negative user reviews on Amazon back in 2006, and I feel bad that perhaps this review might be too harsh. Maybe I should bump up the number of inflatable monkeys she earned. Her new, nice-person-adjusted rating is 4.5 out of 7 giant inflatable monkeys.

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