In David Foster Wallace’s article entitled “Tense Present: Democracy, English, and the Wars Over Usage,” the late novelist, essayist, and part-time college instructor asks: “Did you know that probing the seamy underbelly of U.S. lexicography reveals ideological strife and controversy and intrigue and nastiness and fervor on a nearly hanging-chad scale?” Foster was himself a self-professed SNOOT (his own “nuclear family’s nickname á clef for a really extreme usage fanatic”) who was “so pathologically anal about usage” that he noticed the same pattern occurring every semester in his college classes: “The minute I have read my students’ first set of papers, we immediately abandon the regular Lit syllabus and have a three-week Emergency Remedial Usage Unit, during which my demeanor is basically that of somebody teaching HIV prevention to intravenous drug-users. When it emerges (as it does, every time) that 95 percent of these intelligent upscale college students have never been taught, e.g., what a clause is or why a misplaced only can make a sentence confusing, I all but pound my head on the blackboard; I exhort them to sue their hometown school boards. The kids end up scared, both of me and for me.”
Personally, I don’t believe I’m as vehement a SNOOT as other English teachers I’ve known–although my students would probably disagree. Grammarians typically fall into two camps: prescriptive and descriptive. Prescriptivists are rule-adherents, and they believe that by following the approved, accepted, and time-tested maxims of Standard Written English, people will communicate more clearly with one another. Descriptivists, on the other hand, contend that language is inherently fluid, and so long as a person’s words are understood, what’s there to complain about? Descriptivists accept variances in dialect (think Ebonics), pronunciation, usage, and are generally the mortal enemies of most prescriptivists. Some prescriptivists go so far as to contend that sloppy grammar leads to moral laxity and a general disintegration of civilized society. On the grammarian continuum, I would not categorize myself as a Fascist SNOOT, although I do believe that poor writing is a great impediment to job performance, career opportunities, and one’s desire to be taken seriously. I also recognize that people’s regional and social dialects are an integral part of their personalities, and sometimes it takes a profound effort on the part of a writer or speaker to overcome one’s natural linguistic proclivities and develop skills that our dominate culture deems as “preferred” or “acceptable.”
It may sound silly, but I enjoy reading through grammar books and style manuals. I think Strunk and White’s Elements of Style is a work of sublime genius. (Okay, that might be a bit of a stretch, but it is very good as style guides go. However, the college students I taught a few years ago thought I was daft for assigning them chapters from this book to read for class each week.) Do you remember how Scotty from Star Trek used to spend his shore leave time reading ships’ schematics and engineering manuals? That’s me with style manuals. Sometimes, I’ll peruse several of these books to see what each of them has to say on a given topic. Take colons, for instance. The colon is not as common as a comma or a period, but unlike apostrophes, it is one of the few punctuation marks Cormac McCarthy deems worthy of use. Strunk and White is predictably brief on the topic: “Use a colon after an independent clause to introduce a list of particulars, an appositive, an amplification, or an illustrative quotation.” They go on to add, “The colon has more effect than the comma, less power to separate than the semicolon, and more formality than the dash.” Well said, gentlemen. Other style guides try to use humor to teach a point. The book Woe Is I states, “Think of the colon as a traffic cop, or punctuation’s master of ceremonies.” Likewise, the best-selling guide to grammar and punctuation, Eats, Shoots & Leaves, notes, “A colon is nearly always preceded by a complete sentence, and in its simplest usage it rather theatrically announces what is to come.” (Please understand, this is grand comedy in the world of grammar books.)
Occasionally, the style guides contradict one another. Do you capitalize the first word of a complete sentence which follows a colon if that sentence is not a quotation? Elements of Style says no; Woe Is I says sometimes; Pinckert’s Practical Grammar calls this approach “newfangled” but is otherwise accepting of the practice. The editors of Modern American Usage make this case: “In the modern view, a capital letter would trip up the eye just where the colon means to make a seamless connection.” So, is it a question of rules over aesthetics? Should we take a law-abiding prescriptivist stance and shout “Never!” from the writing rooftops, and thus ensure the moral integrity of the human species? Or should we be wimpy and warm-fuzzied descriptivists and acknowledge that grammar rules change as languages change? Oh, the complexity. And to think how our teachers in grade school made grammar seem so simple.