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Grammar, Potter, and Freedom

Alan Warhaftig has found 474 run on sentences in Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows. Given that the book fills about 750 pages, we cannot help but be astonished by such editorial carelessness.

I’m guessing this news will find a mixed reaction. The sentimentalists will complain that Mr. Warhaftig is trying to ruin a good thing: that Rowling has children reading and is providing legitimate pleasure so Mr. Warhaftig (who probably got his name from Rowling anyway) should stop being so anal retentive and leave her alone.

Our age abounds with that sort of immature, sentimental, smarmy response to people who want us to think carefully and honor conventions. Many who hold such a position have allowed some of their intellectual faculties to atrophy so thoroughly that they no longer have the capacity to perceive their folly. But not all.

Perhaps you find yourself inclined to the same position. A part of me certainly is. “Why does he have to be critical?” we think. And when we think it, we aren’t even sure if the question mark should go inside or outside the quotation marks, so who are we to be so critical of a great story teller like Rowling?

Then I remember that grammar is not just a set of rules and conventions to memorize: it’s the foundation of human communication; it’s the basis for the only kind of real multi-culturalism that can hope to survive. Imagine trying to translate from one language to another without knowing what a subject looks like or where it goes? Think of how many battles are fought over jots and tittles – because they matter! Tiny as they are, the meaning they carry is vast. They are the ants of the linguistic world, carrying weights many times their size. Let us not despise these small friends, the jot and the tittle – nor the comma, the semi-colon, or the period.

Thought forms itself in the structures of grammar. Every thought has at least two elements, neither of which can exist without the other. Every thought has a subject: that about which the thinker is thinking. And every thought has a predicate (from pre dico – to say about): what is being thought about the subject. All grammar arises from this reality, a reality that transcends grammar and language and arises from the ability of the human mind to perceive and interpret reality.

To be unable to use grammar effectively is to be condemned to inferior thoughts and expressions. It is to be prevented from interacting with others and with the world around us as we could have if we had mastered the discipline and art of grammar. It is to be bound to superficiality and, necessarily, error. In the end, it is to be prevented from even realizing what one does not perceive.

That is why the 474 run on sentences in Harry Potter VII need to be fixed. Students will read this marvelous story and be uplifted by it. But they will conclude, without any reflection in most cases, that grammar is of relatively little importance.

They would be fatally wrong: fatal for the culture, fatal for their own minds, and fatal for our language.

Language is our capacity to grasp the much-hackneyed “human condition.” It can do so only to the extent that it reflects that condition. In the January 2003 edition of Chronicles magazine, “Humpty Dumpty” (whom I believe to have been Thomas Fleming) rebuked the multitude of teachers who delight in mocking their students for the inevitable howlers that untaught youngsters produce, recognizing that the responsibility for these howlers lies not with the students but with their teachers who are mocking them.

Fleming won’t stand passively by while the attacker kicks the victim, insisting on at least holding a mirror up by which the attacker can see his own folly. “Superficial prose is a symptom of superficial thinking,” he asserts, commenting on the unfortunately structured writing of an article in The Atlantic Monthly.

There is an axiom that merits contemplation. Read something in the newspaper or in a popular book – or, even worse, in a marketing document.

Here’s an anonymous example (the formatting is lost in its transfer to this blog):

I know, I know. Email marketing ain’t what it used to be.

But, let me tell ya this … it ain’t dead yet either!

I’m not going to waste your time with some long drawn out sales copy here, but I am going to quickly tell you this:

You’re Here Reading This Letter Because
Email Marketing Is Alive and Doing Well!

The only way you’d arrive at this page is because you read an email message that I sent to you as one of my subscribers.

This page isn’t advertised anywhere else.

So, there’s your proof that email marketing is still an effective way to get folks to take action…

If you know how to get your email messages DELIVERED.

If you know how to get your email messages OPENED.

If you know how to get your email messages READ.

If you know how to get your email messages RESPONDED TO.
That’s an awful lot of “ifs”!

When you finish that section, do you feel respected? Do you feel that your thinking has improved?

Marketers write like this because of one classical principle of rhetoric: know your audience. They write to fourth grade minds because their audience possesses fourth grade minds. By writing that way, they get rich.

People write that way because readers are in too much of a hurry to have the time to read anything that won’t retard their mental development. For that is the condition we have attained as a group of communicators (I cannot say “community”).

Maybe we are in a transitional stage: a necessary retardation following the rise of the formerly neglected classes. Perhaps as they are better schooled, writing will improve, and the semi-educated that are the perpetual targets of propoganda will raise educated children. But I can’t find any evidence or reason to hope so. That would require schools that value grammar. How can a generation of castrata bear fruit?

Careless grammar produces poor writing. Poor writing produces shoddy thinking. Shoddy thinking enslaves free people. Slaves perpetuate careless grammar. If we know anything at all of the tools that set us free, we owe it to the bound to offer them these tools. We must resist the overwhelming temptation to tighten their chains by slipping into sloppy syntax ourselves. Listen to these profound words from Fleming’s article (especially the first balanced clauses):

Since, like most of us today, [P.J. O’Rourke] is incapable of writing a balanced complex sentence, he cannot think a balanced complex thought and has to offer his opinions as so many different-colored blocks scattered across the playroom floor. To assemble them into a house would require the sort of civilized mind that Henry Adams possessed, but most moderns do not.

This is the sort of damning paragraph that offends those of us who realize the world is a disaster but think it hasn’t affected us. How dare he accuse us!

A more humble response would be more helpful.

I recognize that I am not civilized; that I lack the discretion to make the most common judgments in matters of taste and morals. I am not civilized. Civilization requires models of virtue and wisdom who are held up for emulation. We don’t have them.

Look, we would-be classical educators make a great deal of the liberal arts, at least of the trivium if not all seven of them. But what the heck is a liberal art?

It’s an art that is required for a people to remain free.

Are we just playing games with our pontifications? Do we get excited by them, but refuse to understand the implications? Do we even believe in our own principles? If we are to be a free people we must have a populace that is educated in grammar. When we are bound, it doesn’t set us free to deny that we are bound.

That is one of the primary motivations behind the structure of The Lost Tools of Writing.

May I close by saying that I welcome criticisms and suggestions for improvement in my own grammar, punctuation, etc. I yearn to be a free member of a free community.

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