Without the commas

Harry Drabik

With the Fourth nearby I’ve noticed the repetition of a minor error in announcements saying “red white and blue.” Elementary school water coloring days taught me that would mean (depending on the proportions) an off-white blend. Red, white and blue indicates two colors: red and then a presumably pale blue. Informally or when it doesn’t matter we can be loose, but if you really mean three separate colors it should be written as red, white, and blue. This isn’t about patriotic ritual or convention. It’s about recognizing the sometimes overlooked importance of a simple comma. If an insurance contract says you’re covered for “flood, fire and wind” you might be out of luck with a fire claim on a windless day.

A few years back I had a form of this talk with a young attorney who produced wonderfully impossible run-on sentences. After covering a few things about sentence structure and grammar I was told none of that had been covered at university. A writing instructor had, in fact, denounced grammar as nothing more than class distinctions. In my view that overstates it some, but I had to hand it to the instructor for finding a way to teach less and still get paid. Formal English can be stuck on outdated conventions, but informal language does the same. Dismissing grammar on social or political grounds suggests to me the instructor was taught by someone with a similar political view and an incomplete grasp of grammatical function. In plain non-formal English I’d say “You can’t teach what you don’t know.” The result, too often, is professionals who’ve been ill prepared and who have to learn on-the-job, aka the hard way. For that the young professional may be heavily in debt helping subsidize instructors who can’t or won’t teach.

Classical educators (once called pedagogues before that word became tainted) used to warn of the dangers from lowering standards. A reduced standard accepts as given that we can’t meet a tougher test. This may be true, but it is much more likely when you’re given not-much standard to meet. Are we really so limited as being we can’t understand commas, participles, or anything that can’t be written with thumbs on a tiny screen where auto-correct makes errors aplenty?

Instead of complain that standards are unfair and objecting to application of norms we might be better off slugging it out with reasoning and information rather than accept as a heavenly-derived given that grammar is classist rubbish. The best I can say of revisionists is they seek to remove judgmentalsm, but they do so by making the judgment that grammar is about class. So much for breaking free of bias. Don’t know about you, but it annoys the liver out of me to be held guilty of the same habits of an accuser. Behind a narrative or assumed truth there should be some basis of demonstrable fact. When a narrative or assumption goes unchallenged we often end up with conclusions lacking evidence or evidence ignored because it’s outside the story. It’s a picky process (akin to understanding punctuation and participles) that goes along a route that might yield some understanding. But isn’t the effort worthy? And shouldn’t we believe we can master understanding of something more than other people’s narratives of truth?

Not long ago a respected news organization decided to not use “terrorist” in its articles because “one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter.” That’s a valid reminder and is true in some cases. But when an individual or group lauds its acts as terror and has a longish history of such I don’t think freedom fighter fits, do you? Do freedom fighters attack military targets or do they pick shopping bazars with civilians?  In most cases it is not that difficult to see and make the distinction between terror acts and revolutionary ones. If a reporter or agency can’t make the distinction I’d hope they’d find other work, perhaps instructing Basic English at institutions where their politics can be profitably appreciated. 

Another issue on my mind around Independence Day is the expansion of words and phrases in support of censorship and limiting freedom of expression. One form of English sentence using linking verbs gives an equivalency. This is equal to that. Political correctness is censorship. That’s an equivalency based on counting self-censorship and social pressure as a force equal to an outside censor impounding you and your laptop in the night. Calls to ban hate speech, hate crime, supremacists, and so on are likewise aimed at shutting off expression or association, etc. A simple way I use cutting to the chase is to view complaints as if they were accusations of blasphemy; which applies in many cases.

Not only around the Fourth, but every day, I try to stay liberal-minded; to think before acting or reacting. Not always easy when one’s traditions or sacred cows appear to come off badly. But being true is more important to me than straight partisanship. Credit and applause should go where I think it belongs and fault or blame the same. I feel proud and humbled to live with such freedom. Much if not most of the planet is strangled with either division or conformity. As I see it we are lucky. I am fortunate to have matured when sexual liberation was in the wind. How liberating to be less constrained. Yet, too seldom have the liberated owed up to some of the very appreciable costs to society and individuals of that expansion of human freedom. It was after all sexual freedom that fueled one of the killers of so many of the liberated. This freedom gave us more human petri dishes to pass along the STD’s that ultimately took a toll in lives and misery.

I’m not suggesting a moral code. Instead I keep in mind the necessary connection between freedom and responsibility. The freedom to do away with grammar has consequences same as relaxing other restraints. This Fourth when remembering freedom I will also recall a face (at the end skeletal as a METH user) of a promising former student destroyed by AIDS. I’ll celebrate but will not forget costs and consequences so easy to overlook.