01 March 2006

The Rules

I am not a big liker of rules, so I am embarrassed to admit that I have come to a place in my life where I respect and value The Rules. Not all the rules, of course, just the ones about commas and apostrophes and restrictive clauses.

Granted, it took most of 35 years and I was dragged here kicking and screaming. Nevertheless, I am here.

My first experience with The Rules was one I avoided completely: 4th grade. All summer between 3rd and 4th grade I dreaded getting stuck in Miss P’s class because she had a reputation for drilling students in The Rules. I had it on good authority, my best friend from across the street who had had her the year before, that you didn’t make it out of her 4th grade unless you memorized all the prepositions and could use ‘whom’ correctly. I got lucky and got Miss C, instead. (Sort of lucky – she terrorized me for not talking, but that’s another story.)

So, I didn’t learn The Rules in 4th grade (we hatched chicken eggs in an incubator, instead).

My next experience with The Rules was 7th grade. I had this weird, sorta-ex hippie, Ms. W (and it was most definitely ‘Ms.’ and not ‘Miss’), who thought it was far more fun to take us to her friend’s restaurant and teach 27 pre-teens how to make cheese soufflĂ© than teach us something as mundane as grammar and punctuation.

She left such things to her friend, Mr. M, who substituted for a week or two while she was off doing god-knows-what. He was a prissy, stick-up-the-butt kind of guy who promptly lost control of the class trying to get us to memorize prepositions and convince us that commas were important. I can still see him standing there at the front of the class – he had puffy, chipmunk-like cheeks, a little Hitler-ish mustache and wiry black hair he had tried to comb flat to make it behave and be neat. He kept talking louder and louder as more and more people ignored him and turned to talk to their friends. I sat near the front and felt kind of bad for him. But he kept insisting that you couldn’t break The Rules unless you knew them first. Which made no sense at the time, although I think I’m starting to get it now.

But really - learn The Rules just for the sake of knowing them? You’ve GOT to be kidding. I had better and far more interesting things to do.

And then I went to college and majored in Theoretical Linguistics. That didn’t help at all. Majoring in Linguistics is like majoring in the Anti-Rules. ‘Cuz linguists, see, are not interested in The Rules, at least not The Rules as set in stone by the likes of Strunk and White or the Chicago Manual of Style. Linguists have a whole different definition of “grammatical” and are positively delighted to find native English speakers who are perfectly comfortable using a double (or triple) negative for emphasis (as in: “I don’t got no money”).

So. I ended up with a very well-developed disdain for The Rules that bordered, at times, on outright disgust. In my mind, The Rules were outmoded and out of step with the real rules of real language. By the time I was 25, I was thoroughly converted to the ranks of the who-needs-commas-anyway camp. Never thought I’d leave.

And then one day, not long ago, I caught myself explaining one of The Rules to a co-worker. And waiting patiently for her to process what I had said and make it her own (?!).

Then I started noticing that I agonize – agonize – over whether I am using “that” or “which” correctly. I actually get huffy when people don’t put commas where they should and instead, constantly stick them in places they have no business being. I even have, on my Amazon Wishlist, a grammar and punctuation reference book. Which I am actually hoping to be able to afford someday soon.

This is the worst thing though: you know that the comma before the “and” in a series (as in: “breast, lung, and colorectal cancer”)? I grew up thinking that comma looked blue-blooded and arrogant, not to mention that it’s superfluous and makes the sentence look cluttered. However. Since my conversion to an advocate of The Rules, that comma now looks normal to me and a sentence without it seems quite naked: “breast, lung and colorectal cancer”??!?? ACK! Cover it up, quick!

So I have to ask myself: What’s with the grammar and punctuation appreciation?? How did this HAPPEN?? To ME, of all people: the agnostic, anti-establishment, rebel-at-heart, cantankerous Yankee?? Especially given my background, I mean really, how the hell did I GET here??

I blame my job.

I think it all came about as a form of self defense. Really. I can spend weeks reading page after page of complicated biomedical gibberish where the only words I understand are “if”, “and”, and “the”. Perhaps in order to preserve my sanity and sense of self-worth, I began grasping at straws: at least, I must have thought, I know where the commas should go. That’s something. I know where the commas should go and where they should not go. So I can’t be as stupid as I feel. Right?

Who knows. In any case, here I am, with a handle on The Rules and some sense of their purpose, finally. And that purpose is this: Clarity. Clarity, clarity, clarity.

You don’t notice this in normal, everyday writing because you don’t need to. Sentences are fairly simple. Most of the words in them are comprehensible. The periods go where they’re supposed to and who cares about the commas and apostrophes. We don’t really notice them because we don’t have to. The meaning the writer is trying to get across is, for the most part, very transparent.

In medical writing, it’s just the opposite. Sentences tend to be way too long and most of the words in them – if they’re not some arcane abbreviation – are actually some form of Latin or Greek. In an environment like that, if you aren’t careful with your commas and apostrophes and subordinating conjunctions, you’d never figure out what anyone was trying to say. And that would be a shame, since a lot of it is probably pretty damn important and some of it might even save your life someday.

So I suppose, after howevermany years of avoiding it, my brain finally found space to store The Rules, because it finally found a decent justification for the space they were taking up. That was all it needed. A real, honest-to-god reason.

Too bad nobody told Mr. M that.

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