Tag Archive for Cranky Syntax Monkey

I Do Believe in Syntax

And lo, it is Monday, and we continue the dancing monkey series wherein people ask me questions and I blog long, rambling answers in response. Once more into the breach and all that.

Today, Peter Kerby offered up the following:

Just to stir the pot; English is living language and all living things evolve, so how much licence should be tolerated when it comes to grammar and spelling, or does it depend on the intended audience.

Verily, I am the wrong person to ask this sort of question, ’cause my response is invariably something along the lines of “so long as you can be understood, rock the fucking Kasbah, lolz, peace out, peeps.” Except, you know, not in so many words, and potentially in ways that make me sound less like an idiot and more like I have some understanding of what da kidz are speaking like with their crazy slang these days. I mean, hipsters, man, who gets them? (Hipsters are still a thing, right?)

You want a license? No problem, I hereby give you a license to go forth and fuck up language’s shit as much as you want when it comes to the words themselves.

I’m not a purist when it comes to word. Call it the side-effect of spending years and years and years teaching in a creative writing degree where people were really fond of semiotics. The important part isn’t really the words themselves, it’s making sure there’s a cohesive framework around the words that allows you to understand what’s going on. Words are…well, lets just say they’re meaning is inherently situational, and their meaning is capable of being utterly borked by putting them in the wrong place in a sentence.

Grammar, though, that’s a different story.

I am, by no means, a grammar ninja. I’m fairly slipshod with all sorts of things like apostrophes and deploying the right version of their or there when they need to make an appearance in a sentence. It took my an embaressingly long time to develop the necessary pattern recognition to recognise the difference between a lowercase b and a d as a kid, and my understand of grammar constantly floats somewhere between English and American English conventions as a result of being an Australian who writes, primarily, to sell things into American markets. I developed strong opinions about the Oxford comma primarily to irritate my friend Laura Goodin (who is a grammarian ninja and thus becomes one of those people I consult when I do dumb-ass things like write an entire story where there is dialogue within dialogue every paragraph).

Despite all that, I’m a fucking nutter about learning grammar, ’cause grammar is the toolkit of syntax and syntax is the goddamn glue that keeps the English language together despite its inconsistencies and stupidities. The basic approach to the sentence – doer, doing, done to – is a pretty useful thing and when people start fucking around with syntax too much I find myself reaching for the nearest copy of Strunk and White that I can carve into a prison shiv and go a-hunting.

‘Cause it’s when you start fucking with Syntax – the basic framework wherein a sentence as a subject acting upon something – that language falls apart and I loose interest in trying to decode whatever it is you’ve thrown on the page. When it comes to syntax I lose any pretense of rationality and just start frothing at the mouth.

And, again, this is a side effect of many years working in universities and marking the creative writing assignments of first-year writing students whose approach to grammar and syntax was…well, lets just say that I spent a lot of time resisting the urge to write I WILL CUT YOU, YOU GODDAMN FUCKER in the comments of their essay and short story assignments.

Which is not to say that I’m militant about any of these things – once you know the rules of grammar and syntax, I’m happy enough for you to break them, so long as you know why you’re breaking them and what effect you’re going for. Fucking with the status quo of language, grammar and syntax from a position of knowledge is sexy as hell, and I’m sucker for any author who can do it well.

And you know what? I’m not alone in that. Get together a group of writers and editors, lob in the question “so what do you think of a well-deployed semi-colon?” and watch about half the room melt into a puddle of hormones and desire.

Just be warned that the other half of the room will, of course, turn on you like a pack of rabid dogs for even suggesting such a thing (semi-colons are divisive, man), but to each their own. Both sides are coming from the same position – know your shit – so we’re really all fighting on the same side in the end.

But I’m digressing – I know I’m digressing here – and I’ll get back to the original question. I have no problem with the evolution of language, or even the evolution of syntax, but my level of interest in decoding things evaporates much faster when you fuck around with the structure. I’ll spend days reading, say, A Clockwork Orange and working out what shit means ’cause it’s system is familiar, but if you expect me to learn a whole new system of syntax I’ll generally flail.

As in all things, it’s a pick your audience kind of thing, just as you suggest in the question. People who speak multiple languages probably have a much higher tolerance for syntax hi-jinx than I do, simply ’cause they’ve been forced to learn them as a result of the language studies (except German, maybe, ’cause my dim memory of studying German in high-school suggests its got a similar sentence structure to English). People who were born before the invention of mobile phones may have a much stronger objection to seeing the phrase “lolwt?” in fiction. We all get used to certain structures and accept them as normal, and so long as what we’re reading seems something akin to recognisable we’re generally willing to puzzle shit out.