The highest compliment I ever paid an editor was to say that she had changed the way I think about commas. That may not sound like much, but it was revolutionary to me. Commas, punctuation, good grammar -- these are precision tools, designed for clarity. If you’re a writer, they’re all you have.
But no ... not only if you’re a writer; they are also essential if you want to accurately express your thoughts. As Fiona Maazel observes in a terrific little essay for the Millions: “On the spectrum of world problems that need bemoaning, is bad grammar really one of them? ... Yes. Yes it is.”
Maazel’s piece is a jewel of concision, five paragraphs arguing that poor grammar is “the handmaid of imprecision.” She effectively debunks the debunkers in two well-wrought sentences: “For a lot of people, good grammar is like the opera -- elitist and snobby. Never mind that opera tickets cost less than the nose-bleeders at almost any sporting event in the country or that the stories in opera are as Everyman as it gets: boy meets girl, boy loses girl.”
The point, of course, is that we are what we attend to, that culture is not something bestowed but something made. To support this idea, Maazel invokes George Orwell -- specifically his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language,” which she says argues that imprecise writing "allows propaganda to thrive."
As it happens, I agree with that entirely; “This invasion of one’s mind by ready-made phrases,” Orwell writes, “... can only be prevented if one is constantly on guard against them, and every such phrase anaesthetizes a portion of one’s brain.”
What Orwell is really on about is the importance of remaining conscious, particularly in regard to “the decay of language” and its concomitant effect on how we think and interact. Maazel has something similar in mind.
“Imprecision,” she explains, “allows you to say one thing when you really mean another, or at least to obfuscate whatever it is that you do mean. Imprecision favors political conformity by relieving all of us of the burden to think. … As Charles Baxter writes in his wonderful essay ‘On Defamiliarization,’ the kingdom is running smoothly because no one is learning anything.”
I know, I know -- elitism again, or nostalgia: the dismay of those who long for a more nuanced time. “It follows,” Orwell notes, “that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric lights or hansom cabs to aeroplanes.”
And yet, what’s elitist about clear expression? Saying what you mean and saying it in direct language ... that’s about as populist as it gets. “Bad grammar,” Maazel declares, “falls into the same category as bad prose writing, which heralds the depredation of our culture and the exaltation of fascism.”
Sound like a stretch? Maybe. But what she’s getting at is that, as Orwell argues, language is “an instrument which we shape for our own purposes,” which means we are, we must be, responsible for everything we write and say.