Friday, August 15, 2008

Grammar Angels

I've had an odd week filled with conversations regarding words. As well as with words, which is helpful as wordless conversations, while fun, are much more difficult to carry on when not face to face.

It started Tuesday at my writing critique group when one of my partners commented that I use very old words. She'd industriously looked up the etymology of several words in my chapter and noted that they'd been around for several hundred years. I believe the example she gave was my use of the word shod. Her wise insight was that I should better consider my audience, that they may not share my appreciation of having to look up words when reading a novel. Her less helpful comment was that I might try writing more common.

I did not say "Have you met me?"

Such a comment isn't entirely new; I once had a colleague
(fondly, I'm sure) say that she needed to consult a dictionary in order to hold a conversation with me. But I'm not apologetic for it either. I personally enjoy keeping lists of the words I discover while reading for which I don't already know the meanings. I may not always get around to looking them up, but I've scraps of paper all over the place filled with driblets to of these days.

That's not everyone's cup of tea. Many would rather just dive into an enjoyable story and escape for a while. Lord knows I've been there too. But the books and stories I return to are the ones that challenge and engage me.

That same week, while waiting for an office birthday party to commence, my senior writer Doug asked me if the proper phrase was "a happy medium" or "a happy median". I said it's the first and, as he thought otherwise, there went 10 minutes of us in fervent debate about the matter. After which there was cake and laughter and smart-mouthed talk, because that's the kind of people I work with - for the most part.

About half an hour after returning to my office, pleasantly filled with the ooey gooey chocolate center of an ice-cream cake, there was Doug again. "OK, I've got one for you. Is it 'chomping at the bit' or 'champing at the bit'?" I said chomping and there went another 15 minutes of debate complete with Doug visualizing his point with an - um - evocative imitation of a horse chomping on its bit complete with foot stamping. It also
included a lively discussion of past tense, present tense, past present tense and so on. (BTW - Webster's backs me up in both instances.)

This is our idea of fun.

The phrase "get a life" comes to mind now.

Although the chomping imitation was not to be missed.

Then it was my turn.

"Is it 'You have another thing coming' or 'You have another think coming'?" This is one of my favorites. Doug,
like most people, said "thing coming." But no one would say "if you thing I'm going to do this, you have another thing coming." No, it's "if you think I'm going to do this, you have another think coming." (Though Judas Priest would disagree with me.) People never say it that way, though, because it doesn't feel natural, however accurate it may be. It's just one of those grammar things that trips us up if we think about it for too long.

As, apparently, I do.

I like thinking about and exploring these things. I don't want to write more common and, frankly, I don't think I should have to. If you have to look up the words I'm using, well then I'm doing my job so
buck up baby. I want to be challenging and provocative and to raise the bar in the conversational gauntlet. Too much of our lives are abbreviated, too many of our interactions are broken down to slang and text-acceptable tidbits. Too many times we don't think about what we're saying (though I never do that, oh no, not me.)

It's all quite wonky.

Pick up the glove and accept the challenge. Be adventurous. Buy a dictionary.

Or the Microsoft Word Thesaurus works in a pinch too.

The day after these grammatical deliberations I found myself using the phrase "chomping at the bit" in an e-mail. Of course, all I could see was Doug and his oh-so-special, horse-like demonstration. Damned if I didn't go back and change it (erroneously) to champing. Suddenly I had this grammar angel on my shoulder making me over think the smallest point till my brain wanted to weep.

I still can't figure out if it's my better or darker angel.

Guess I'll just have to settle for a happy medium.

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