Monday, August 17, 2009

Who do you have to sleep with to call yourself a grammarian?

In light of my post on the exclamation point, which was the 16th post in my Grammar Musings label, I started wondering: what are the qualifications to be considered a grammarian? Who do I have to sleep with to make a statement like, "As a grammarian, I've made the decision that it's acceptable to say exclamation point or mark, as the writer prefers"?

Hey, this is the Internet. Anyone can say whatever they like. Case in point: Well said, To Karani. But there are definitive grammatical rules that are finite and irrefutable, the breaking of which makes one an IDIOT.

But what about the gray area? The fact that I just started my sentence with But: that's gray. Gray doesn't make me an idiot, but (in my opinion, either as a grammarian or not) using grey would have.

And specifically using But (or And) at the beginning of a sentence makes me an artist (make sure to pronounce that in your head ar-TEEST). Arteests are allowed to end sentences with have as well, did you know?

Trust me. It says so, right here in Wikipedia:
In summary, artistic license is: Entirely at the artist's discretion; Intended to be tolerated by the viewer ( . . . ); Useful for filling in gaps, whether they be factual, compositional, historical or other gaps; Used consciously or unconsciously, intentionally or unintentionally or in tandem.

I'd say the last phrase "[Artistic license is] used consciously or unconsciously, intentionally or unintentionally or in tandem" is the biggest loophole ever invented. Probably invented by a grammarian.

I like the rules and I like following the rules. But sometimes the point I'm trying to make doesn't fit within said rules (in my--ahem--arteestic opinion). Personally, I think that is where the line falls (and sometimes fails): in the writer's willingness and desire to know and follow the rules.

For example, I've decided that since I use Latin phrases ad infinitum, et cetera, id est, blah blah blah . . . I'm going to be consistent and use the Latin version of artistic/poetic license: licentia poetica. Any suggestions as far as pronunciation would be appreciated.  And, as always, I'm aware of my inconsistency with my italics . . . the use of italics changes dependent upon my judgement as an arteest.

Licentia poetica is what makes it funny when I say things like uber-facetious-izing (remember that?). I don't care if I'm making a grammatical fauz pas (I'm a rebel like that). There just isn't a word in our language that conveys the appropriate amount of facetiousness for the particular sentence I was writing; the foo paw was a necessary evil. Saying that I was being "super duper facetious" just wouldn't have had the same effect.

I have never referred to myself as a grammarian. I'm not quire sure why it seems a sacred title to me.  For whatever reason, I have it stuck in my head that calling myself a grammarian without the proper credentials would be like a garbageman calling himself a Sanitation Specialist. Mutton dressed as lamb, I think is the phrase? So I've called myself a grammar freak, I've said I'm embracing my "inner stickler" (Lynn Truss), but I've never presumed to call myself a grammarian. And it wasn't until my post on Exclamation points (marks?) that I wondered Why not?

Sure, I know crap like the difference between gray and grey (grey is British spelling) and which there/their/they're to use why/when. I can use an ellipsis properly . . . and I can recognize the misuse of it (the ellipsis) and it is/its/it's.

I also know when to use all the who'ses's and whoses, when to use isn't and ain't, and when it's appropriate to say those be versus thems are (ha ha . . . made ya look).

Knowing all these rules made me wonder: well, what does one have to do to refer to oneself as a grammarian?

From The Free Dictionary: a grammarian is "a specialist in grammar; a person who studies or writes about grammar for a living." Also interesting to note, the thesaurus defines grammarian in addition to listing a synonym: "a linguist who specializes in the study of grammar and syntax; syntactician."

I can say with absolute certainty that I am not a linguist. I speak only one other language other than English: Pig Latin. But I am interested in figuring out the difference (if there is one) between a grammarian and a syntactician. I have a feeling that the word I've been salivating after (grammarian) may not in fact be the word I've been looking for. I think I was asking the wrong question, and should have been asking about a syntactician.

Unfortunately it's hard to get a straight answer when you use as many different online dictionaries and references as I do. The Free,, . . . there isn't a unified definition.

Two of the three sources use grammarian as a synonym for syntactician and visa versa; Merriam-Webster does not list any synonyms. My (unprofessional) paraphrasing of all of this is that syntax is the study of how words are put together, and grammar is how they're supposed to be put together.

Which is to say, both words refer to the architecture of a sentence, but grammar is the study and proper application of structural elements and syntax is the design. Continuing my analogy:  grammar is the knowledge that an arch will support the most weight and must be used thus, and syntax is the opinion that a hoopty-hoo would give just the right touch aesthetically.

I'm going to keep going!  If grammar is the decision to use a suspension bridge, not a truss bridge, in a particular situation because of the distance spanned and whatever other technical elements go into that decision, well syntax is the decision to use a Golden Gate, not a railroad bridge, in the same situation.  The syntax is still "right," but it's almost more of a coincidence than anything else.  And yet!  The syntax-person could look at something and say if the hoopty-hoo is used correctly or incorrectly; he or she just doesn't always know why.

So where do I fall?  Most definitely in with the hoopty-hoos.  I hate geometry.

So back to the grammarian versus the syntactician debate.  Any moron out there can have an opinion about design, could call him or herself an interior designer or a florist or a wedding coordinator. Ad infinitum! There are credentials the person could get, and if the person wants to get and keep clients, it would behoove them to have the appropriate credentials. But the person could also just start calling him- or herself an interior decorator and no one would ever dispute it (from a legal standpoint). It's not a lie, even if it's not the truth.
But to call oneself a doctor or a lawyer or an architect . . . .

There are a number of professions out there that each require a set amount of education by an accredited school upon the conclusion of which the person earns his or her title. My same example person from above could just as easily start saying he or she is a doctor, but falsely impersonating a professional person is a crime, isn't it? I'm pretty sure it is. Eventually the truth is discovered and there are very real consequences.

Are there consequences for (falsely) calling oneself a grammarian? Or a syntactician? Am I going to go to jail for using "hoopty-hoo" in a sentence?

I'm thinking . . . not so much.

It is no secret (I just don't like to advertise it) that I missed the day they taught all the official grammar rules in school. Generally I have no clue why things are the way they are (I know about adjectives, nouns, verbs from Mad Libs, not school). I'm exaggerating a bit here, but mostly I know how to write because I'm an avid reader, not because I learned about grammar in school. I can't diagram a sentence or point out passive or active voice (which is which?). I could fumble my way through a multiple choice exam, and I'd probably ace the exam if it had examples, but I could never produce definitions of the structural elements within the sentence.

It's the curse of the English Major . . . I'm not the only one. I remember figuring it out for the first time in college. English Majors actually do the worst in Grammar 101. I thought that was bull puckey until I enrolled in Grammar 101 (technically, I think it was Understanding Grammar 121 or something like that). I remember the first day of class, how I sat in the front row all ready to be handed the easiest A of my entire college career (picture Reese Witherspoon from Legally Blonde on her first day of law school, with her fuzzy pink pen and steno-sized pad of paper looking around at her classmates, each with laptop). In my grammar class, the professor began with this statement: "Let's start off with something easy: Diagramming a sentence!" I peeked around the room in horror, frantically scanning the other students and hoping to see at least one person who looked as confused as I. But all I saw was fellow classmates pulling out pens and pencils and "diagramming" (whatever the hell that is). I doodled for the rest of the class and never went back.

Not my proudest moment.

Prior to that apocalyptic occasion I had never heard the phrase diagram a sentence. I've shared this story, hesitatingly, a few times since that terrible moment, and every time I get the same response: "They don't teach diagramming sentences anymore." No one is shocked that I don't know how, or that I didn't know what it was, and yet . . . never in my life have I felt like such a doofus.

So, okay. Decision made! I'm not a grammarian, nor should I call myself one. Not sure who it is, but I'm fairly certain that there IS someone you have to sleep with to call yourself a grammarian. There's probably some degree or certification or medal. BUT! I think I may still be able to catch the syntactician boat, even if I'm just tied to the bow screaming, "I'm sailing!"

Because calling myself a grammarian requires education or knowledge or something I don't have, but any boob out there can have an opinion about the hoopty-hoos and how sentences are put together. Calling myself a syntactician is nothing more than licentia poetica.

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