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.
In the opening section of Payback, her recently published collection of Massey lectures on debt as an imaginative construct, Atwood plays with the language as an accomplished writer should, and as many other writers could. Describing the tea box she kept money in as a child, she writes that
It had a brightly coloured Indian design, complete with elephant, opulent veiled lady, men in turbans, temples and domes, palm trees, and a sky so blue it never was.
Never was what? In a strict grammatical sense the verb ‘was’ cries out for an object, demands completion. Atwood could have written something totally pedestrian like “a sky so blue that it never was possible” or even “a sky so blue that it never could have been”. But neither of those alternatives captures the sense of impossibility quite as well as the original. Bad grammar? Sure. Badly written? Never.
As she builds the story of her “financial puzzlements”, Atwood drops into the conversational style of the novelist, offering this little gem when explaining why the head appearing on a coin doesn’t determine its value:
In high finance, aesthetic considerations soon drop by the wayside, worse luck.
Again, the sentence terminates with grammatical transgression – the last two words can’t even remotely be considered a clause. But there couldn’t possibly be a better way to express disappointment. The transgression stands.
One more example should suffice to round out my case. When Atwood describes her discovery of interest as a child, a sort of magic appearance of extra money in her bank account, she compares it to the ‘real’ money she earned “wheeling a baby around in the snow”. She knew, she writes, that she hadn’t actually earned the money:
No babies from the bank had been wheeled around in the snow by me.
Now many editors would wince at the ‘by me’ tacked onto the end of that sentence (shades – gasp! – of They Might Be Giants singing ‘You’re Not the Boss of Me’ as the theme for Malcolm in the Middle). We’ve discussed this a few times in the office and it usually grinds. Why can’t it be “I hadn’t wheeled any babies from the bank around in the snow”? Passive voice, hello? But, when I think about it now the sentence really couldn’t have been any other way – the babies and the bank are the point, not little Maggie Atwood earning 25 cents an hour slogging through the snow.
Grammar can be a very useful guide and should be the path along which our words mainly travel; it saves us and others from the mess of our minds transposed onto the page. But it’s also a prison from which the best expression must escape, will inevitably escape. Not everyone can or ever will write as well as Margaret Atwood, but at least we should be mindful of her persistent disobedience.