In (Partial) Defence of the Ungrammatical
What is it that keeps us on one path, that makes us entirely certain about what we know, or a least what we think we know? Robert Burton argues that it has little to do with conscious thought – the certainty of knowing arises from “involuntary brain mechanisms”. It is, in short, not a form of logic but a feeling, something that’s necessarily beyond our ken. So it pays to question motives, to probe presumptions, to break down certainties and ask “why is this so?”A recent comment from a customer made me start thinking about what it is that editors take for granted, the touchstone of our craft. Removing all the ancillaries, brushing off the day to day rigmarole, it all comes down to correcting grammar.
It’s not easy to defend grammar, which is by and large a thoroughly boring topic. And having spent a little time planning a series of writing workshops with two teachers on Friday I can attest that the merest mention of grammar will release a series of obscure terms and dire hints of convulsive and compulsive rules to come. Is it important that a writer knows what a present participle is, or just describes herself as a working woman? Written grammar is important only in that it offers a way of formalising on the page what we – at least most of us – instinctively do with the spoken word.
The extent to which we should belabour grammatical conventions is never the point of contention it should be in my profession. True, we need some sort of approbation to ensure that writing is readable, and I endorse most of the hidden tricks that shape written English. But every now and then I come across words in striking combinations that exceed grammar in their cleverness. Margaret Atwood, at once a novelist, poet and essayist, is particularly good at this.