Sunday, October 16, 2005

THE CASE FOR GOOD GRAMMAR. WABC’s Like It Is is always interesting, and this weekend they had a nice show: an old, grainy film of Gil Noble interviewing Nipsey Russell. The recently-deceased comedian was a gent of the old school, and very smart.

There were all kinds of wonderful things about Russell’s interview. He was gentle on younger comedians who worked blue, for example; though Noble gave him an opportunity to bitch about that, Russell delicately suggested that those potty-mouthed comics who found success did so because of "that which is meritorious" in their artistry. He compared their condition that of to jazz artists who support themselves with commercial work, but who nonetheless maintain a high personal standard for the quality of their playing. This is a higher order of logic, not to mention a better understanding of the human condition, than one usually expects from TV clowns.

I was most struck, though, that Russell went out of his way to let it be known that, even though he’d grown up in "abject poverty" in Atlanta’s Third Ward, he had received there a proper education in English grammar, and that he respected that gift and had profited from it as an entertainer. Even when not doing his act, Russell spoke beautifully.

I like to think, being still romantic about the power of language, that Russell’s attention to it informed his reasoning and his positive outlook. I know all sorts of miserable and sometimes horrible people speak well, and I know that politicians have speechwriters. But in most cases I would put these unfortunate cases down to other negative environmental factors to which educated people are often prone.

But proper grammar isn’t, or shouldn’t be, only for those people we call educated: pretty much anyone can have it, if it is presented to them at the right time and in the right way.

At the very least good English is a civilizing hobby, like horticulture or chess. It is an observable fact that some form of useful discipline – e.g. the well-known "spell in the army" often prescribed for young miscreants – can turn even hard cases around, by channeling their inchoate energies.

Making a proper sentence requires a kind of mental engineering that causes even a strongly-felt emotion, coming out of the id like a compressed jet of molten lava, to confront a divided pathway of choice, which often leads to another series of choices, and then another, etc., thereby cooling and – when it all comes together in speech or writing -- condensing the product.

Let’s say I am writing a post about one of my favorite subjects. Is my target an idiot or a liar? If a liar, in service to what nefarious cause is he lying? What particular passages in my target’s drivel support this analysis? Which derogatory adjective is most suitable to him? And so on. By this method, I may have strengthened my argument, and also vitiated my initial rage which, were those skills not available to me, might have emerged as an actionable death threat.

At this weblog proves regularly, a hothead can still say foolish things in complex sentences. Take it from me, though, I would be even worse, much worse, if I hadn’t been taught to make words add up to something more than volume.

In my weekly teaching stint, tutoring kids who have not had my good fortune with educators, I try to work in as much grammar as I can. The rubrics often don’t call for it, but I am on a mission. My usual come-on with remedial students is that, in order to get over on the teachers whose poor recommendations have brought them to this place, they must be able to show they are smarter, and better English is a good way to do it. If I’m feeling brave, I also remind them that the world makes judgements on them based on the way they express themselves, and there is no percentage for them in being thought less intelligent than they really are.

I don’t share with them my conviction that better English leads to better thinking. But I hope it will occur to them over time.

Nipsey Russell did his bit, and I’m trying to do mine.

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