19 March 2013

Geeky Grammar Girl

I confess, I'm a grammar nerd. It's got to be genetic; it certainly runs in my family, and my daughter has been doubly blessed. It's a curse at times. Do you have any idea how hard it can be to read a book that's rife with typos, awkward structure, and just plain wrong usage? Oh, wait. I'm describing what I see on the internet. Okay, I see it everywhere: books, magazines, newspapers, email messages, not to mention text messages, tweets, and signs. It's enough to make one's head explode! In fact, the errors on signs have gotten so pervasive that they inspired Jeff Deck and Benjamin Herson to embark on the Great Typo Hunt in 2008, criss-crossing the United States in search of "misplaced apostrophes, typos and other syntactical atrocities" to correct them. (You can find out more about this endeavor and its results on their website.) I don't think you have to be a grammar nut to have the same reaction.

A number of years ago I took on the mantle of Grammar Lady for a discussion board I frequented on far too regular a basis. I refrained from correcting people for a long time, gritting my teeth and sitting on my hands. There came a time, though, when I had to step in. A repeat offender made an egregious post that offended one's sensibilities in all ways, not just in the writing. It was so bad, I couldn't make my way through the tortuous prose (if it could be called that) that resulted from this person's compulsion to write and then not review what he'd written before hitting "post." It was exhilirating and liberating to finally release all that pent-up rage at the sloppy, incoherent writing that filled the screen. Turned out, my rebuke was much appreciated and enjoyed by the rest of the denizens. I did it in an eloquent, witty style and, before posting, made good use of the "preview" feature of the platform we used. Yes, it was possible to preview what one had just written to see how it looked and scanned before clicking the "post" button. One could do this a myriad of times to make sure one had written a coherent post. Sadly, it was an oft-skipped step in posting.

Fast-forward to 2013, when it's possible to comment on almost everything on the internet. Yikes! It's the Grammar Lady's nightmare come to life. Nobody reads what he's just typed. Nobody stops to check whether autocorrect has changed any words before she hits send. I have to stop reading comments sometimes not just because of the invective or inanity, but also because of the bad grammar, punctuation, and spelling.

Why am I telling you all this? [That's "all of this," as opposed to "you all," not that there's anything wrong with this expression. ("You all" or "y'all" is a fine colloquial collective noun that's further refined to "all y'all" to encompass absolutely everyone as opposed to just one or a few.) Perhaps I should have recast that sentence, but it's an innocuous example of the misunderstanding that could occur because of an inattention to clarity. Read either way, it's fine. That's rarely the case though. Sorry, my self-editor has emerged.]

A friend asked about a book on grammar published in 2009, Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English, by Patricia T. O'Conner (updated and expanded third edition no less). I have a collection of reference books for grammar, spelling, and editing, having been a proofreader, copyeditor (used to be two words!), and publications manager in a past career. This, however, is not among them. Why not? you ask. To be honest, when it came out in 1996, I was pretty much over my intensive editorial career and didn't feel the need for yet another reference book on grammar. So I decided to pick up a copy from my local library and check it out now.

I've skimmed through the various parts of the book, pausing to see how she treats some of my pet peeves, what updates she's made, whether I agree with what she says is or is not a hard-and-fast rule. On the whole, this is a great little book. In a breezy, witty style, she lays out the rules and guidelines without being didactic. What she's done is take Strunk and White's The Elements of Style to the next level, and it's a good thing. I discovered clarifications of some things that even I, a professional, wasn't always sure of. She has a section on pronunciation that at times made me chuckle. Am I going to buy a copy to add to my library? No, but I heartily recommend it to anyone looking for a plain-language guide to the English language who doesn't already have several more intensive reference books in his or her arsenal.

How do we get some people to read this? You know, the people whose writing is at times so murky that you have to go back to the beginning several times to find your way through to the meaning.

It's a problem that has its origin in the way we teach the English language arts in school. When my niece was in middle school, she asked for help studying her vocabulary list for a test the next day. As we (parents, aunts, uncles at a family dinner) all pitched in, we were astonished at her response when asked to spell the word as well as define it. "Oh, we don't have to worry about the spelling, just the meaning." Why not? Wouldn't it fix the word better in one's brain to learn both aspects simultaneously, to have to be responsible for spelling and meaning on the same test? When will they have to start worrying about the spelling? Perhaps I misunderstood, but I don't think so. It would certainly explain some of the writing that comes from college-educated people these days.

Are grammarians an endangered species in the 21st century? I fear this may be the case. Even people who claim to be writers (and they are legion) seem not to care about precision and accuracy in their published work. I bought an ebook (cheap) that apparently hadn't been read by anyone other than the author prior to publication, as evidenced by the typos, awkward sentence structure, and just plain grammatical errors. It was unreadable. It's not unique.

Obviously, there's no easy answer to this problem. If you're interested in improving your writing to make it comprehensible, thus more persuasive, I've got a few books you might be interested in.

The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. At 92 pages, this is the most succinct, useful guide to proper English usage you'll find. I have the third edition, but I see that there's now a fourth edition. I may have to get it.

Woe Is I, by Patricia T. O'Conner (briefly reviewed above).

Words into Type, based on studies by Marjorie E. Skillin, Robert M. Gay, and other authorities, third edition. This is my favorite comprehensive style guide. I'm glad to see that it's still in print. If you're in the business as a professional editor or writer, you should have a copy of this book. I found my copy in a used bookstore in the '80s.

The Careful Writer: A Modern Guide to English Usage, by Theodore M. Bernstein. In dictionary style, Bernstein, a former consulting editor of The New York Times, provides a concise handbook that covers problems of "use, meaning, grammar, punctuation, precision, logical structure, and color." I confess, I rarely use this. It's an excellent reference, though, and was a later addition to my library.

There are more, probably many newer, books on grammar and style. These are the ones I've found easiest to use. Doesn't that make it more likely that I'll actually open one when I'm not sure I'm doing the right thing?

In closing, I have to ask: Did you pause in awe of my utter geekiness in the fourth paragraph?

12 March 2013

What am I doing here?

Good question. I suppose this is as good a place as any to write down my ruminations, whatever happens to pop into my brain. It's a process of renovating my mind, refurbishing it, updating it, exercising it, keeping it young and active.

Who really cares? Another good question, but I'm not sure that really matters, now, does it? After all, it's all about me and I care.

I've been thinking about happiness lately, mine, yours, the country's, the world's. Happiness in general and its relationship to the state of things. I blame this on Adam Davidson and his article in the February 10, 2013, New York Times Magazine, "Money Changes Everything." He talks about economists and their efforts to quantify happiness "to use this new data to inform more traditional measures, like G.D.P. or the unemployment rate, and to influence government policy," an admirable idea.

I looked around on the interwebs to see what I could find beyond this thought-provoking (to me at least) essay. Starting with the premise that money can buy happiness, I came across a blog post by Penelope Trunk from 2004 with the provocative title, "You only need $40,000 to be happy." Hmmm. She evidently came up with this number based on her reading of Stumbling on Happiness, by Daniel Gilbert. I haven't read Mr. Gilbert's book and probably won't (but you never know, trying to improve the mind and all that it entails), so I'll accept that she was right.

The problem I have with her stating that as a fact is, this comes from a person who was making $200,000 a year at some point. Was she still making that kind of money when she wrote this? I have no idea, but I seriously doubt that she was making ends meet on $40,000 a year. So, easy for you to say, Penelope; but have you tried it? She posits that "happiness is dependent on being able to meet basic needs for food, shelter, and clothing," with which I heartily agree. I don't agree, though, that $40,000 a year will provide that for everyone, or even anyone. Adjusting that figure for today's dollar, it becomes $48,762.31 (not to put too fine a point on it, hahahaha). Is that enough to cover those expenses for the average person? Hard to say, as it depends on where you live and how many people you're trying to house, feed, and clothe on that salary. One person, easily. Two, maybe. More, probably not. Not well enough for happiness among all those living on it. Worry and stress that one can't make ends meet on that amount of money is bound to decrease one's happiness.
She did make a valid point later, though: "So for those of you looking for more happiness, realize that a new job or a new home won't be nearly as rewarding as a new outlook. Optimism makes people happy. Raising your standing on the optimism scale will impact your happiness more than raising your worth on the pay scale." True to a certain extent. Sometimes easier said than done, but true.

I view myself as pretty optimistic. Lately, what's happening in this country has been getting me down, and my natural optimism is really struggling to maintain primacy. Pessimism and cynicism are waging a battle to overthrow optimism, winning a skirmish here and there. Not a happy thing.

But I digress.

Another article I unearthed (unwebbed?) comes from that veritable font of knowledge known as Wikipedia. (Yes, I know, not always reliable. But if you root around and go to source materials, you can be fairly certain of the legitimacy of certain parts. Yes, I said "fairly.") Poking around in there, I found the Satisfaction with Life Index, produced by Adrian White of the University of Leicester in 2006. He "analysed data published by UNESCO, the CIA, the New Economics Foundation, the WHO, the Veenhoven Database, the Latinbarometer, the Afrobarometer, and the UNHDR, to create a global projection of subjective well-being: the first world map of happiness." In 2006, these were the top ten happiest nations:

1. Denmark
2. Switzerland
3. Austria
4. Iceland
5. The Bahamas
6. Finland
7. Sweden
8. Bhutan
9. Brunei
10. Canada

You in the back, waving frantically at me, you have a question? Where is the United States? So glad you asked. Right down there at number 23, below the United Arab Emirates and above Vanuatu. (In case you aren't familiar with Vanuatu, as I wasn't, you can find more information at Lonely Planet. I haven't fully explored it yet, but I'm thinking, vacation!)

I'm not surprised that the US of A is down there. Considering the division of wealth in this country, there are a lot more people struggling to make enough money to cover minimal living expenses than those living without a care in the world, so to speak. Which brings me back to Mr. Davidson's NYT article. Noting that although the US is "three times as rich today as it was in 1973," Americans are not happier than they were back then. Part is explained by my preceding statement. Davidson goes a little farther:

"But the decline in happiness may suggest a more deeply rooted issue. So much debate over government policy is based on economic statistics that come out of the market. But the goal of government is not just to maximize revenue. It’s also to make citizens better off. There is no standardized way for it to see how its decisions influence our well-being. What if government is spending money on things that don’t make us happy?

"In this sense, happiness quantification is anything but wishy-washy. For much of what government does, Deaton says, it is far more rigorous to base decisions on whether they actually improve lives than on some other potentially misleading data. 'It’s not like the economic data we’re collecting now is terrific,' Deaton told me. After all, nothing boosts G.D.P. like a debt-fueled housing bubble or a costly health care system. If happiness became a core part of government statistics, he says, we might figure out what it is Americans want. And then maybe, we could give it to them."

Does anybody else think that the government's not really interested in making citizens better off or in figuring out what it is they want? I'm pretty sure they're not paying attention.

And on that note, I bid you adieu for now. Getting too close to politics, which means my blood pressure will start to rise and my happiness will start to decrease. And right now, I'm all about ratcheting up that happiness.