Syntax and the Single Girl

Nobody is exactly like me. And I’m not just talking about the weird stuff, like the way I see the Bhagavad Gita as a nice, relaxing read or how I like to point out faces I find on inanimate objects. Like anyone, a rich body of lifetime experience and personal preference makes me the unique, little snowflake pictured in my parents’ photo albums.

In some ways, I’m a lot like the other humans; we try to be good and make the world better. We are smart and good at our jobs, and we all deal with love and loss, surprising triumph and spectacular failure. But one difference between most well-adjusted adults and me is that most of them, as intelligent as they are, don’t see the confused little typos leaping out at them from all corners of our info-saturated world. Their text messages don’t have semicolons, or even correct spelling, and most people don’t engage in hot-blooded debates over the Oxford comma. They must not have that socially inept part of the brain that forces them to take a red marker to the grammatical train wreck of subway graffiti, and they certainly don’t evoke the names of Strunk and White in a world where constructions like “epic fail” and “besties” grace our screens and tongues.

I majored in what many reasonable people consider one of the nerdiest disciplines outside of those math-and-sciencey fields that can actually pull down a decent living: I am a grammar geek. Knowing this, people assume I’m ever watchful of their speech, poised to correct and scold at the drop of a misplaced modifier. They see me as a vigilant predator. They can feel my English degree strangling their carefully chosen words before they’re ever spoken, before I even have a chance to pull out a pad of paper to diagram the sentence “I come in peace!”

People trip up when they find out what I studied in college. After the inevitable conversation starter, “English, so, like, are you gonna teach or something?” about nine out of ten people will stammer an apology for their habitual grammatical heresy, along with the assumption that I must be absolutely cringing at all their real big mistakes.

After all, we live in language. A surgical resident doesn’t perform appendectomies over a plate of cheese fries at Fuddruckers, and a physics major is never asked to demonstrate the principle of buoyancy during a screening of The Hangover. But people do communicate. Like my comedian friend who is constantly challenged to “say somethin’ funny,” I chose a career path that transcends the classroom and elbows its way, uninvited, into nearly every conversation. On first meeting, people either recite pre-packaged Shakespeare dialog at me or inadvertently point out how shrewd and judgmental I must be about language. My major was, apparently, a lifestyle choice.

Even the people who know me best fall into this trap, though not the part where they assume that I have done nothing so far with my degree or that there is nothing to do with it besides teaching. A colleague of mine, the brilliant designer and eloquent daughter of international journalists, warns me before I edit a short, conversational blurb, “I’m sure this is, like, atrocious to you grammatically.” Neil, a comedic screen writer, rattles off some hilarious and on-point gem that makes me guffaw cola in a sitcom-worthy spit take. Wiping his face clean with my freshly laundered coat sleeve, he asks, “What? I didn’t use that word right?” Even with all his confidence, all that experience making people laugh with everything from political parody to dick jokes, he can’t seem to grasp that I’m laughing at his humor and not at his lowly peasant tongue.

People seem to agree that I’m out to shine a glaring spotlight on them when they say the wrong word or insert extra syllables. They see me as some unlikely grammar bully pantsing the underlings. I suppose I can’t fault people who think this way; a glaring grammatical error ranks somewhere between garlic breath and cottage cheese thighs in the realm of potential embarrassments for educated Americans. But the truth is, I’m not quite the loud, ornery cheerleader for “whom” and “lay/lie” that everyone seems to prepare themselves for. (See? I can dangle my prepositions like the best of them.)

Of course I notice slips, mishaps, and outright stupidity, and I admit I can copyedit like it’s going out of style, though that’s probably because it is. My alma mater did go to the trouble of printing my name beneath their seal on a really nice piece of cardstock confirming my proclivity for the word “proclivity.” I love my language, but as long as you’re not fixing anything in the printed word for the masses, the wacky mistakes can really dress things up, add a bit of color and vitality to how I see you.

My mom always said, “English is such a stupid language!” Yes, she always said that. I couldn’t agree more, but it’s in discovering exactly what makes it so stupid that fascinates me endlessly. I might spend an unrecoverable hour of my life flipping through the dictionary searching for hilarious guide word pairs (eat – earwax; strut – stuff), and you might say I’m hysterical. And not in a good way. But I might think to myself that, actually, the word “hysterical” comes from the Latin hystericus, which reflects an ancient idea that hysteria comes from the womb (thanks, Ancient Freud) and is exclusive to women. Nothing is wrong with my womb, not that you asked, and as a rabid feminist, I’d say “hysterical” is in the traditional sense much too strong a word to describe the fact that I’m enthusiastic about something that other people find dense and boring. After I’ve both congratulated and censured myself for being such an etymological dweeb, I’ll take that mixed bag of positive and slightly negative energy and forge on in the world, certain that I’ve chosen my field wisely.

So yes, I notice words, and once in a while I might spout off something that makes you wish you were back at Fuddruckers prepping a writhing patient for surgery. But against all stereotypes, I don’t enjoy the know-it-all-ism that often accompanies a basic command of the English language. I worked to become an expert, and to those without that luxury (or, let’s be honest, to those who had better things to do), I thank you heartily for making me look that much more proficient and specialized through your choices to revere something apart from my great passion. I might giggle while you fold your underpants away into your Chester drawers or when you talk nostalgically about the heighth of the Bush administration, but I promise I’m not judging you. Well, not linguistically.

I will not embarrass you as you speak. I will not pull on your words and twist your voice into oblivion until you sound like some vague, bruised mimeograph of me. (Yes, mimeograph. Like bruises, they’re purple. And what the hell, I wanted to use an archaic word.) I hereby promise to reserve my judgment and my cat-like editorial eye for the fine publications that elicit my expertise as an important new force in this exciting chapter of publishing history.

But seriously though, it really bugs me when you say “ain’t.”


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