Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Glamour of Grammar

Dear All,

I've never thought that grammar is glamourous!

Below is a blog from New York Times about grammar, Globlish, teaching writing & books.


Rodney Tan
AUGUST 20, 2010, 11:12 AM
Stray Questions for: Roy Peter Clark

Collins Center for Public Policy Roy Peter Clark
Roy Peter Clark’s book “The Glamour of Grammar” is reviewed in this Sunday’s
Book Review.

Grammar, glamorous? Really?

At one time in the history of the language “glamour” and “grammar” were the same
word. As Casey Stengel once said: “You could look it up.” The link turns out to be
magic. Back in the day, grammar had a much broader meaning. It stood for language
knowledge connected to all kinds of learning, including the dark arts.
That connection between language and magic may be clearer in the word “spell.” It
denotes both the order of letters to form words and an incantation to show your
mystical power and influence. As that great grammarian Screamin’ Jay Hawkins once
explained, “I put a spell on you … cause you’re mine.”
In the common imagination, grammar has lost all those enchanting associations. Now
it conjures everything unglamorous: nagging perfectionists, pedantic correctionists
(my spell checker wants me to change that word to “creationists”), high school
students asleep at their desks, stalactites of drool hanging from their lips.
My seemingly impossible mission, if I choose to accept it, is to bring back to language
learning and usage some of the magic, some of the energy and power, some of the fun.
I hope my book invites people who feel left out of the literacy club to join a community
of writers. Imagine a nation of readers and writers.
A teacher of mine once argued that there were only three ways to become more
literate. The most literate people – think of aWilliam F. Buckley Jr. or a Susan Sontag
– have these behaviors in common. They write all the time and in different forms;
they read widely, deeply and critically; and they talk about reading and writing in
special ways. No one will learn Standard English without applying it in the context of
making meaning. Not Eat Pray Love. But ReadWrite Talk.

What is the future of standardized usage in the era of texting, tweeting
and the rise of “Globish”?

Thanks for teaching me a new word. I had not heard “Globish”; I now know it’s a
neologism, a new word, that blends “globe” and “English.” I also know that a
Frenchman (why is my spider sense tingling?) is marketing it as a stripped down form
of English that can become the standard dialect of international business. His recipe is
to limit vocabulary to 1,500 words, to learn only the most basic sentence structure and
to bleach out all the color: no cultural references, no idiomatic expressions and, most
of all, no jokes! I encourage the Frenchman to “refudiate” that idea.
As for writing using new technologies, IMHO we need to chill.We ridicule the license
plate brevity of tweets and text messages, but one person’s Facebook update is
another’s new genre. Most of the writers I know love short forms. An epitaph is a short
form: “To know him was to love him.” The haiku is way shorter than 140 characters.
Decades ago, the telegram ruled. Some of the most famous could serve as miniliterature.
A reporter writing a profile of Cary Grant sent this telegram to verify the
charming actor’s age: HOW OLD CARY GRANT? To which he replied: OLD CARY

One of my heroes is the novelist and golf writer Dan Jenkins, who, over a half century,
has covered more than 200 major championships. Now known as the Ancient
Twitterer, Jenkins reports bits of action and reaction to his readers on Twitter as they
are happening.

“John Daly today is wearing the orange of Tennessee, Texas, Oklahoma State, and a
strange stomach ailment.” Or: “Free champagne … the only thing that usually makes
sportswriters move that fast is a shrimp buffet.” The geezer as live-blogger.
Your day job is teaching journalists how to write.What bad habits are you
noticing right now?

That’s not the way we roll. I focus on what works, using the best examples of
journalism I can find. I read for pleasure, and to be informed, and to be swept away by
storytelling. But I also read as a writer. I’ll read a favorite passage — the ending of
“The Great Gatsby” — over and over. I listen to the sound of it. I close my eyes and
imagine I am standing there looking out at the water and spotting that famous green
I call this x-ray reading, looking beneath the surface of the text to see all the tools of
language in action. A lot of the best advice in my books comes from that process of
close reading, including examples from a certain famous newspaper in New York City.
To be a congenial guest, I’m happy to voice a complaint or two about news writing, as
long as they are taken as preferences and not some new orthodoxy to be imposed on
overworked reporters. I love the way news stories can lift me up and put me right
there on the scene, and so I’m attracted to stories with short narrative introductions
or ledes. I’ll be reading about some person facing the danger of the day, and I’m
hooked, until I realize that it’s a bait and switch, that I’m never going to see that
person again.What happened to him?
It’s as if the writer is saying to me: “Sucker. Now here’s the rest of the stuff in my
I have made little headway in trying to get reporters to turn the hard facts of technical
government or business stories into easy reading. Too many writers still feel the need
to squeeze everything into that first paragraph.Which creates a huge barrier to entry
for the reader. I’ve seen these ledes on the front pages of many important newspapers
for years – including a big one in New York City. I call this dense style “suitcase”
writing because the reporter stuffs everything in the bag and it won’t close so she sits
on it till it closes. I prefer my news written at a slower, more congenial pace.

What have you been reading or recommending lately?
While I was writing my book, my great friend Tom French was writing his, now
published as “Zoo Story: Life in the Garden of Captives.” It’s the story of a single zoo
in Tampa, but it has Globish — I mean Global — dimensions. It begins with a group of
sedated elephants flying from Africa across the Atlantic to America in the womb of a
giant airplane. These charismatic creatures come to represent a life and death
dilemma: In cases of overpopulation where habitats are threatened by the elephants
themselves, are wild animals better off dead or in captivity? Or is there another
Tom and I went to lunch with friends to discuss Colum McCann’s novel “Let the Great
World Spin,” set in New York City in the tough days of 1974. The story is organized
around an actual event that many New Yorkers witnessed: the walk of a daredevil
across a wire stretched between the tops of the Twin Towers.
As I read about the New York City of 1974, I could not help but think of another date:
Sept. 11, 2001. I wish I knew a literary term to describe the effect I was experiencing,
contemplating the recent past in light of the distant past. “Post-shadowing” perhaps?
It’s not a back story; so how about a “front story,” the story that the reader knows
before opening the first page.

Stray Questions for: Roy Peter Clark - Paper Cuts Blog - Page 3 of 3 21/8/2010

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