Last night I went to a comedic lecture series on the topic "Style & Usage" in a Brooklyn bar. No, wait! Come back! I swear this isn't about hipsters! The last lecturer was there to argue for reinstating the hyphen in New-York, and the MC announced her by listing the books she's written and the places she works. He then ended with, "She doesn't know how to diagram a sentence." And I realized, neither do I.
Through various failings of public schooling and the transition to private school, I somehow skipped the whole sentence diagramming. I skipped a lot, I think. By eighth grade, when I got to private school, I had no idea what an "infinitive" was. I didn't know what "conjugate" meant. Everyone else had apparently tackled iambs and semicolon use and "its" v. "it's" as well. But it was sink or swim, so I learned what I could, faked it when I needed to, and eventually became an English major.
It's sad that nobody really noticed these shortcomings. Perhaps I learned more than I thought and my mistakes just looked like careless errors rather than a systematic problem with how I learned the language. By senior year of college I was still getting As on papers where "it's" would be circled in bright red. They still let me graduate with a BA in English, and write for a successful New York blog, and now they're letting me copy edit a whole website as well as write for various other blogs. They are very forgiving people.
This has lead to an entire life of feeling like an impostor in my own career, with all the overcompensation that comes with it. I'm quick to correct people on "me" and "I" to prove that I know how they're used (when I understand it). I tell my friends they're doing "well." I overuse semicolons and argue for the emdash over the double hyphen and get really upset when apostrophes are used improperly, even though I pretty much figured out how to do all of that within the past two years. I wanted so badly to be a grammar cop, a language Nazi, a SNOOT (as David Foster Wallace put it). I wanted to know all the rules and call everyone else out on them. I wanted to know them the best now because I never learned them then. I wanted to prove to everyone, mostly myself, that I am not a phony.
Also, the grammar police club is so enticing. It's full of people who love fonts and argue over kerning. It's full of people who know what the fuck kerning is. They're librarians with tattoos who know Latin roots. They write essays about the implications of punctuation changes in different copies of the Second Amendment. This may not sound cool to you, but I wanted to be one of the people! Not only that, I should be one of these people. I still find it pretty insane that a well-known museum hired me as a copy editor instead of one of these people. I don't even own my own copy of the Chicago Manual of Style.
And then, another lecturer came up, with the program "Words are Tools: Goddamn Learn How To Goddamn Use Them." And he explained what I realized I had always felt. That grammar and language is a tool, not a weapon. That split infinitives don't matter. That words and their meanings are fluid, and that dictionaries don't tell you what things mean, just what they used to mean. That rules are important, but if you get across what you're trying to say in a clear and elegant manner, fuck the rules.
This kept me up at night. I was stunned that a lecturer with a Doctorate from Oxford was saying this. "It's a trick," I thought, "to weed out the people who don't understand language and throw them out of the bar for trying to sneak into our SNOOTy club." Wasn't this exactly the person who should be correcting people on split infinitives left and right? Shouldn't he be sending angry letters to the Post over an improperly placed "only"? If he isn't doing that, what right do my lowly BA and I have to bitch at you about your comma placement? Copy editors are supposed to be grammar Nazis, and if I'm not a grammar Nazi, what the fuck am I doing?
Then, I thought about my friends outside of the style and usage profession. There are actually quite few. I thought of my boyfriend, an engineer, who builds things and designs things at work all day long, who will fix something at home if it's really broken, but otherwise will leave it alone. I thought of my bartender friends, who will mix you a kickass drink if you ask them, but not judge you on making a rum and coke with the wrong measurements. I thought of my photographer friends, who take beautiful photos but won't write snarky comments on your Facebook snapshots.
Why do grammar Nazis feel this constant need to take work home with them? Perhaps it's because language isn't relegated solely to the work sector. Perhaps in a world of OMGs and LOLs it feels nicer to know that you're doing it right. But for the first time since middle school, I don't want to be one of them. And now, it's time to accept that I nag my coworkers non-stop about their italizations and quotation marks, then come home and use the word "awesome" without being truly awed by anything. I hear people say "who" when they mean "whom" and leave it at that, instead of forcing myself to correct them (even in my head) because that is the Duty of a copy editor. I capitalize "Duty" to suggest it is an important, official thing worthy of capitalization, not because it's what actually needs to be done to the word.
When I was a freshman in college, Ellis Marsalis performed on campus (a wonderful consequence of going to school in New Orleans). Afterwards he hosted a Q&A; one bold student asked him if he could read music and understand music theory, and how important that is to being a musician. "The question is never 'Do you understand the theory behind this?," said Marsalis. "The question is 'Can you play?" That sounds about right.