Grammar quirks and miniskirts. Here’s what I’ve been up to…

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Is It Right,
or Is It Wrong?

     Grammar is not one of my favorite subjects to teach. For one thing, it’s an uphill battle for many students. But there’s also a less talked-about problem: grammar is always changing. This semester, for the first, time, I began noticing the proliferation of the word “how” in my students’ papers used in place of “that.” For example: “Mr. Smith told us how we should be more careful when we cite our sources.” What is meant is that we should be more careful. If Mr. Smith literally told the students how to be more careful, the sentence would read, “Mr. Smith told us how to be more careful…” But as soon as I started taking my students to task for this construction, I noticed how often it turns up in our speech, and even in professional, published  writing.
     Another recent grammatical shift is in the use of the word “because,” which until now has acted as either a subordinating conjunction (beginning a clause such as “because we forgot our lunch”) or as a sort of preposition with the word “of” (“because of our lunch”). Grammar gurus are noticing, though, that in the past few years, “because” has been used more and more (especially on Twitter and in blogs) as a strict preposition, with a single noun following it. For example: “I went back for seconds because barbecue!” This hasn’t turned up in my students’ writing yet, but chances are it won’t be long.
     The evolving usage that interests me most at the moment is the question of pronoun-antecedent agreement. As gender becomes more fluidly defined, we run into problems with gendered pronouns. One solution is to use “they” as a singular pronoun, as we do so often in our speech. If I say, “My editor wants me to cut my favorite scene,” and you don’t know the gender of my editor, you might reply, “Which scene are they talking about?” The editor, a singular “he” or “she,” is referred to as a plural “they” in order to avoid assigning a gender. A different solution to the problem of gendered pronouns has been to introduce new gender-neutral pronouns (such as “ze” and “hir”), but so far these are gaining traction only in pockets of academia and groups with a particular awareness of gender identity. My students haven’t said a word about this. However, knowing that the issue is deeply important to those in the transgender and genderqueer community, I’m becoming less comfortable by the year with marking pronoun-antecedent agreement “errors” as “wrong.”
     What I’m really trying to teach my students as we stand on these shifting grammatical plates is just one of many English dialects, the Standard Written English that’s still valued in formal written communication, but there's no universal agreement on when an aberration has become "standard." (I sometimes get called out for starting sentences with conjunctions like “but”—see first paragraph.) I like David Foster Wallace’s observation in his essay “Authority and American Usage” that “most of us are fluent in more than one major English dialect and in several subdialects… Which dialect you choose to use depends, of course, on whom you’re addressing.” The little boy who speaks only Standard English on the playground, Wallace continues, is not smarter than everyone else. He's actually deficient. “He has only one dialect. He cannot alter his vocabulary, usage, or grammar” to suit the situation. So, go ahead and say “because barbecue!” Just don’t do it in your English essay. At least, not yet.

photo: Kathy Leonard Czepiel






When History Meets Fiction, Part 2

     In my last newsletter, I talked about one of the challenges readers face when reading historical fiction: where is the line between history and fiction? Many of you told me you enjoyed that piece, so here comes part two, on another challenge particular to historical fiction: walking the line between past and present.
       In an essay printed at the end of his historical novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob DeZoet, David Mitchell mentions dialogue as one of the difficulties of crafting a story set in the past. “Only a masochist could stomach five hundred pages” of historically accurate dialogue, Mitchell says. He writes, “To a degree, the historical novelist must create a sort of dialect—I call it ‘Bygonese’—which is inaccurate but plausible. Like a coat of antique-effect varnish on a new pine dresser, it is both synthetic and the least-worst solution.”  In fact, when we read books that were written in a different time and place, we often encounter difficulties with language and vocabulary, but we approach those books with the expectation that we'll have to work through that difficulty, and some readers skip those books altogether.
       It’s not just dialogue that poses problems for the writer of historical fiction; it’s also social mores. For example, imagine how horrified a turn-of-the-20th-century woman might be by the sight of Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge—a woman who has to maintain the utmost public decorum—in a mini-dress! Contemporary readers tend to read historical characters as a bit prudish or dull if they don’t act just a little bit more like us. In 2013, interviewed Emma Frost, head writer of the television drama The White Queen, which is based on three historical novels by Philippa Gregory. Frost talked about the difficulty of developing a historically-accurate drama for television, saying,  “The truth would be: they'd all have rotten teeth, they would be filthy and covered in lice and itching all the time. Do you want to watch that show? I don't think so. Also, the male and female courts were entirely separate in the daytime. Men and women only came together privately—even at dinners, they sat at different tables. How do you write that show? I don't know how to write that show.”
       Late in revisions of A Violet Season, I ran up against this difficulty myself. My editor was concerned that my protagonist, Ida, would lose the sympathy of today's readers for not acting quickly enough in a crisis situation. There are reasons why Ida, a not-so-young woman at the turn of the 20th century, would not have acted: she has no money of her own, she can't abandon her household duties, including a baby to nurse at a time when there were no good breast pumps, and she has a husband whom she is afraid to disobey. But there was a concern that, for many readers, those constraints—historically very real—would not be enough. So I had to put up a few more barriers that help to explain why Ida chooses what she does.
       Interestingly, this problem of past values and behaviors clashing with the present seems less troublesome when we’re reading fiction from the past. No one reading Pride and Prejudice, for example, expects a steamy love scene between Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, but a historical novel adhering to the same mores of courtship would probably be dismissed as boring today. This may have to do with our expectations, whether recognized or subliminal, when entering a novel. When we read Jane Austen, we expect to have to do some historical “translating.” We seem to go to the historical novel expecting something different.

photo source:     


I just read. . .

A Fort of Nine Towers by Qais Akbar Omar. I set aside a week and a half of “pleasure reading” for my college freshmen this spring, hoping to lead them back to an earlier time when they read just for the fun of it and not to fulfill an assignment. Based on their interests, this was one of the six books I offered them, and it turned out to be, in my opinion, the best. A Fort of Nine Towers is subtitled An Afghan Family Story, and bills itself as “one of the rare memoirs of Afghanistan to have been written by an Afghan,” which in itself seems a startling claim. Why aren’t we hearing Afghanistan's stories more directly from Afghans themselves? One of my students noted, “It really hit me: these people are just like us.” It really hit me, too. Our impressions of Afghanistan are mostly driven by the news media and entrenched American attitudes, and we know so little of the ordinary people caught in the crossfire of decades of war. A Fort of Nine Towers begins with the rich, comfortable family life of seven-year-old Qais and his extended family, all living together in Kabul in his grandfather’s large house, where apple trees grow in the courtyard and Qais and his cousins fly kites on the roof. But early in the book, warring factions begin to take over the city. Qais’s grandfather, a carpet seller, loses his entire inventory of carpets to theft by the Mujahedin. Thousands of people are being murdered, and Qais and his grandfather narrowly escape the same fate when they return to their home from their hideout at a friend’s home, the fort of the title. The family takes to the road in search of a safe haven, but war follows them wherever they land. When they finally return to Kabul, things are even worse: now the Taliban are in control. While Omar’s story is often hair-raising and downright disturbing, it is also a powerful story of family loyalty and, as my student said, a story about people who are ultimately just like us. It’s an important book for that reason. A Fort of Nine Towers gives us an Afghan voice, one so often left unheard and one that reminds us of our common humanity while at the same time drawing us into a world not our own. Omar seems to understand this when he tells us in a brief afterword: “I have long carried this load of griefs in the cage of my heart. Now I have given them to you. I hope you are strong enough to hold them.”
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Copyright © Kathy Leonard Czepiel