Pompous, Petty Pedantry

Occasionally, someone will show me an article, tweet, blog post, or other piece of media where some God of the Mount Olympus of Correctness blasts someone else (or a lot of someone elses) for daring to use language incorrectly.  Such articles run the gamut from smug to downright insufferable, and they are usually written with just enough flashy, stylish confidence that they seem more than superficially clever.  When my friends show them to me or post them to Facebook and say, “Thinking of Jill,” I try to separate what I have to believe (or hope to believe) is a compliment to my love for and respect for language from the apparent belief that I will be entertained by the shaming of some hapless person whose only sin is USING LANGUAGE WRONG.

I hate these pieces.

Here’s why I hate them in two short vignettes from my own life:

First story: Last year, I spoke at a conference to a packed room that was lively and responsive.  They laughed at my jokes, they participated in my unorthodox, somewhat interactive presentation, we all had fun.  There were a couple of hair-raising moments where I had to improvise, quickly sketching out something that would have been demonstrated in a video clip that wouldn’t load.  Afterward, people came up to me and said how much they enjoyed it.  Considering how much time and effort a colleague (who couldn’t join me in the actual presentation) and I had put in, it was extremely gratifying.

Then this gentleman came up to me and said, “I have to tell you how much I enjoyed your presentation, but I also have to say – you said ‘cite to’ – which is redundant. You should have just said ‘cite.’”  The glow of my pleasure dimmed a little.  I felt abashed and slightly ashamed, even though this had occurred during the moments I was covering for the video that did not play and I had been ad-libbing madly, laying the tracks of my speech just ahead of the oncoming train.  His comment, much as I tried to put it in context, stuck in my craw in the way that the one negative comment in a sea of positives always will.

Second story: Today I tweeted:

I was still riding the high of the truly inventive, hilarious show John and I had seen the night before.  I loved that show – I would see it again in a heartbeat.  I want as many people as possible to see it because I think it is Shakespeare for everyone: people who love Shakespeare, people who are afraid of Shakespeare, people who have never thought that Shakespeare could be for them.  Imagine my chagrin when I saw this reply:  

Again, I felt abashed and the glow of my pleasure was dimmed a bit, similar to the first story.  I was also irritated – why the hell does this guy even care?  Then I looked him up and realized, oh – he’s a drama critic.  This definition is crucial to his amour propre as a professional.

Two thoughts on this one:

First thought: If I had been a newcomer to theatre or to Shakespeare, instead of a lifelong participant in theatre as an audience member, a crew member, and an actor, I might have shrunk from ever seeing another show again.  After all, here’s a professional telling me YOU ARE DOING IT WRONG.  Shakespeare is scary enough for enough people, after all, that it doesn’t take a lot to spook a person.  But in a context where live theatre in general isn’t exactly booming, I would gently suggest that picking irrelevant nits isn’t the best way to be an ambassador, especially for someone whose livelihood depends on a thriving theatre community.

Second thought: If I am anything, I am a librarian. So after having this grit of pedantry in my shoe for a while, I looked up “opening night,” because I’ve never heard of a more specific definition of this term than “the first night where people pay full price to see a show” (in other words, the performance after rehearsals and previews) and it suddenly occurred to me, “Is this dude even right?” Every single definition that I was able to find (including in the Oxford English Dictionary) was merely this:

opening night n. the first night of a play, film, etc.

Now… was he wrong? I don’t know. There may be, somewhere, a definition of “opening night” that is more specific than the one I repeatedly found  (interestingly enough, my hardbound Third Edition of the American Heritage Dictionary doesn’t even have an entry for the term).  But the point is, neither was I wrong, and I certainly wasn’t wrong as a member of the audience hoi polloi who might not be expected to know the intricacies of professional usage in a specific context.

People like to treat language like math or a game – there are absolute rules of right and wrong and moreover there are points to be scored.  I find both approaches frankly tedious, but per my first thought above, I also think it’s dangerous.  Similar to experiencing theatre, people need to play with language to learn it and to love it.  If you hem them in and constantly tell them, “YOU ARE DOING IT WRONG” they will cease to love playing with language and that would be a shame.  Or worse.

If you have an age to read something more erudite on the subject, please see Stephen Fry’s essay here, or this kinetic typography video:
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And of course there is always XKCD:

“National Sibling Day”

Background: I’m an adult of divorce. My folks split up when I was in law school. Today is “National Sibling Day” apparently. I was lucky enough to get a stepbrother I adore in the divorce and remarriage stakes.  The text below is an edited version of something I wrote in August 2007.

When I was a child, I had a fairly typical child’s view of family. Crayola stick-figure people, proudly standing in front of an improbably-colored house. Mommy, Daddy, Me. There was a vague notion that another small stick-person might come to join us one day. It happened to other people, after all, it might well happen to us. But for the time being, MommyDaddyMe was a fixed constellation, a part of a larger system that also contained star-clusters like GrammyGrampa, and UncleAuntCousin.

I remember one kid in my first grade class whose parents were divorced. It was so outside my six-year experience that it was frightening, an unknown condition that was potentially contagious. As time went on, of course, it happened more and more often as the mid-70′s wound down into the late 70′s and all through the 80′s. Other people’s constellations were more like volatile molecules, whizzing around and bouncing off of one another. MommyDaddyMe, though, we continued. We mostly stood still like one of those time-lapse movies where people flow like a jittery river around a statue or monument. Everything else changes. The monument endures.

I like to joke that my life turned into an after-school special when I was 26, when my parents divorced. It used to be a way to deflect unwanted sympathy – make people laugh so they don’t feel they have to try to figure out how to make it better. Now it’s just something I say: an old, tired laugh-line I have a hard time letting go of. The fact was, the monument was gone, and its component elements entered the shifting, passing flow.

Entering the speedy world of the molecule after spending years in the still, changeless silence of space can bring on some sharp shocks. About 25 years after I had stopped wondering about the possibility of another little stick-figure, I suddenly had a stepbrother, eight years my junior.

This does strange things to the part of your brain that controls definitions. People ask me now if I have any siblings and my automatic answer might be a halting, “No.” And then, “Well, sort of.” After all, it’s pretty silly to call Brian “My father’s second wife’s son” when there’s a perfectly good three-syllable word for his place in my constellation. At the same time, using the  term “stepbrother” seems disingenuous. We didn’t grow up together – I didn’t get to lord it over him until he got bigger than me (I could say he’s my made-to-order big little brother). There’s something strange about calling someone your “brother” when you’ve never lived in the same household. Yet anything else is inefficient and inaccurate.  We have learned that we have an uncanny and yet comforting/comfortable affinity.  We finish each others’ sentences. Our partners have a hard time believing we are not biological siblings.  Bri and I have discovered that we can define our own families.

Speaking as one who never thought she wanted a sibling, my brother is an unearned, unexpected joy.

Happy Sibling Day, Brian.

Missed connections: Winter 1989, Syracuse, NY

You: the guy who made the effort to lift a window and holler, “Dumb bitch.”

Me: the girl who had just slipped on the ice, falling flat on my back in the street.

I was recently reminded of our relationship when a friend related her story of a well-meaning person who told her to “be careful” after she had already slipped in slushy conditions. While our time together was admittedly brief, our connection has clearly stayed with me through the years.

Deciding voluntarily to endure several Syracuse winters confers a certain Spartan distinction in and of itself: forswearing the dubious comforts of a dormitory and striking out to taste college-town apartment life and the delights of alternate-side street parking in subzero conditions can but add luster to this achievement.  But you, you uncompromising cheerleader: you wanted me to be better, try harder, maintain balance in a slick, unmanageable hellscape.  You expected more from me in that twilight hour when we had to shift our vehicles, battling like gladiators for that plum spot just outside the front door.

I admit, I was breathless from your attentions. Or maybe it was just that I had the wind knocked out of me.  Landing flat on your back will do that to you.

I wonder, sometimes – did you subsequently set foot on an icy step, fall, and strike some crucial bit of anatomy? Not your head, of course – any skull that contains the random assortment of neurons that would fire in such a fashion to produce a response such as yours to my situation that frigid night would clearly put a brain in the “nice to have” category.  I have little faith, but I do have hope that a sort of enduring karma was visited upon you at some point.  You were, after all, memorable.

Overheard at our house, ventriloquist edition

Me (to the microwave, which is emitting a loud hum/buzz): “Stop that, it’s annoying.”

John (in a high, floaty voice): “Okay!”

Overheard at our house, cheesy soul music edition

John: “This may be a reverse-skate song.”

Overheard at our house, 80′s version the eleventyith

Tears for Fears “Shout” is playing.

John: “Whatever happened to the other guy in this band?”

Me: “?”

J: “This is Wham!, right?”

Me: “?  No.”

J: “Oh, yeah. This is Tears for Fears. Still two guys, right? So whatever happened to the other guy?”

Me: “Andrew Ridgeley? Are we still talking about Wham!?  I am fighting hard not to blog this, by the way.”

J: “How long has it been since you blogged?  Do it after dinner.”

Overheard at our house, meatball style

The scene: Cardboard boxes full of flat-pack cabinetry are stacked neatly all around our dining room, ready for assembly and installation.  John sits on a stool amidst the proto-wreckage.

Me: “What are you doing?”

John: “Sitting in the kitchen.”

Me: “Fair enough.”

Overheard at our house, pop music edition

Me: “A band that can do a bombastic cover of a Depeche Mode tune, and then go on to do something with acoustic guitar and whiny male vocalist? SIGN ME UP.”

I was going to write this here, but…

I thought it would suit my professional blog pretty well too.  So “People Want to Help” is over there if you care to read it.

Overheard at work

Me: “There’s a publication out there called Peasant Studies Newsletter.

Colleague: “Really?”

Me: “I suppose Peasant Studies Newsletter is appropriate.”

C: “As opposed to?”

Me: “Something grandiloquent like Peasant Studies Journal, or maybe The Annals of Peasant Studies.”

C: “I was thinking Peasant Studies Trade Weekly would be good.”

Other Colleague: “The title fills me with Weltschmerz. With a moment’s effort, they could have entitled it: Serf, Peasant & Villein, or the Periodical Peon, or (my favorite) De Rustici.”