April 18, 2012

Grammar and Morality

Lately there’s been an article going around titled “The Real George Zimmerman’s Really Bad Grammar”, by Alexander Nazaryan. I’m a week late getting around to blogging about it, but at the risk of wading into a controversial topic with a possibly tasteless post, I wanted to take a closer look at some of the arguments and analyses made in the article.

The first thing that struck me about the article is the explicit moralization of grammar. At the end of the first paragraph, the author, a former English teacher, says that when he forced students to write notes of apology, he explained to them that “good grammar equaled a clean conscience.” (This guy must’ve been a joy to have as a teacher.)

But then the equivocation begins. Although Nazaryan admits that Zimmerman “has bigger concerns than the independent clause”, he nevertheless insists that some of Zimmerman’s errors “are both glaring and inexcusable”. Evidently, quitting one’s job and going into hiding for one’s own safety is no excuse for any degree of grammatical laxness.

Nazaryan’s grammatical analysis leaves something to be desired, too. He takes a quote from Zimmerman’s website—“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil, is that good men do nothing”—and says, “Why does Zimmerman insert an absolutely needless comma between subject (granted, a complex one) and verb? I can’t speculate on that, but he seems to have treated ‘is that good men do nothing’ as a nonrestrictive clause that adds extra information to the sentence.” This sort of comma, inserted between a complex subject and its verb, used to be completely standard, but it fell out of use in edited writing in the last century or two. It’s still frequently found in unedited writing, however.

I’m not expecting Nazaryan to know the history of English punctuation conventions, but he should at least recognize that this is a thing that a lot of people do, and it’s not for the reason that he suspects. After all, in what sense could the entire predicate of a sentence be a “nonrestrictive clause that adds extra information”? He’s actually got it backwards, in a sense: it’s the complement clause of the subject—“necessary for the triumph of evil”—that’s being set off, albeit with a single, unpaired comma. (And I can’t resist poking fun at the fact that he says “I can’t speculate on that” and the immediately proceeds to speculate on it.)

Nazaryan does make some valid points—that Zimmerman may be overreaching in his prose at times, using words and constructions he hasn’t really mastered—but the whole exercise makes me uncomfortable. (Yes, I have mixed feelings about writing this post myself.) Picking grammatical nits when one man has been killed and another charged with second-degree murder is distasteful enough; equating good grammar with morality makes me squirm.

This is not to say that there is no value in editing, of course. This recent study found that editing contributes to the readers’ perception of the value and professionalism of a story. I did a small study of my own for a class a few years ago and found the same thing. A good edit improves the professional appearance of a story, which may make readers more likely to trust or believe it. However, this does not mean that readers will necessary see an unedited story as a mark of guilt.

Nazaryan makes his thesis most explicit near the end, when he says, “The more I think about this, the more puzzling it becomes. Zimmerman is accused of being a careless vigilante who played fast and loose with the law; why would he want to give credence to that argument by playing fast and loose with the most basic laws of grammar?” I’m sorry, but who in their right minds—who other than Alexander Nazaryan, that is—believes that petty grammatical violations can be taken as a sign of lawless vigilantism?

But wait—there’s still an out. According to Nazaryan, all Zimmerman needs is a good copyeditor. Of course, the man has quit his job and is begging for donations to pay for his legal defense and living expenses, but I guess that’s irrelevant. Obviously he should’ve gotten his priorities straight and paid for a copyeditor first to obtain grammatical—and thereby moral—absolution.

Nazaryan squeezes in one last point at the end, and it’s maybe even more ridiculous than his identification of clean grammar with a clean conscience: “One of the aims of democracy is that citizens are able to articulate their rights in regard to other citizens and the state itself; when one is unable to do so, there is a sense of collective failure—at least for this former teacher.” You see, bad grammar doesn’t just indicate an unclean conscience; it threatens the very foundations of democracy.

I’m feeling a sense of failure too, but for entirely different reasons than Alexander Nazaryan.

Editing, Grammar 7 Replies to “Grammar and Morality”
Jonathon Owen
Jonathon Owen


7 thoughts on “Grammar and Morality

    Author’s gravatar

    I agree with most of what you say here. I do think, however, that the sort of crisis communication that Zimmerman is attempting here requires careful editing of all sorts.

    Author’s gravatar

    I have no doubt that he could benefit not only from an editor but from a public relations professional as well. It doesn’t seem very realistic for someone in his position, of course. But at the very least he probably shouldn’t be making public statements without his lawyers.

    Author’s gravatar

    George Zimmerman is not a writer, so it is unfair to criticize him on minor points of written usage. Similarly, Alexander Nazaryan is neither a sociologist nor a sociolinguist, so perhaps it’s not fair to criticize him for his casual speculation about the relationship between grammar and morality.
    The grammar issues in and of themselves, however, are another story because the author is a “former English teacher.” The results are mixed at best.
    Nazaryan mentions his frequent admonitions to “remove that comma.” It’s true that commas are troublesome, but teaching the conventions of punctuation was his job, not an occasion to complain.
    He also said, “don’t end this sentence with a preposition.” We can’t weigh in on that advice without looking at “this” sentence. Maybe he has a misguided prejudice against ending a sentence (clause, actually) with a preposition. It’s hard to say.
    The comma in the Edmund Burke quote is a mistake, but Nazaryan’s analysis (as you pointed out) is way off base. The “needless” comma does not follow usage guidelines; however, it reflects the natural pause that most speakers would make in the utterance. Try it out for yourself: The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil – is that good men do nothing. The predicate following the comma is not a clause, non-restrictive or otherwise.
    Nazaryan gives his students good advice when he says that you should not adopt a “formal tone, not naturally yours.” Most of the mistakes with whom are a result of adopting a formal tone, and Zimmerman does misuse it. When Zimmerman says “my family and I” in an accusative position, that could also be considered a case of adopting a formal tone. Shakespeare did it, but apparently Zimmerman is a fool for replicating it.
    The nit he picks about ultimately is, again, a comma problem. It’s an interesting issue for copy editors, but not a big deal for readers. Punctuation outside of quotation is also a minor usage issue, not a big deal grammar-wise.
    Then there’s the that/which relativizer issue. A little research would reveal that this has never been a solid distinction in English grammar. Our best writers have not observed the restrictive/non-restrictive proscription.
    In his conclusion Nazaryan says he’s “not trying to be silly” (judge that for yourself) “nor is this just another condescending attempt… to besmirch…” (OK, we’ll take your word for it, I suppose.)
    However, the grammatical analysis is marginal, and the sociology is ludicrous.

    Author’s gravatar

    “George Zimmerman is not a writer, so it is unfair to criticize him on minor points of written usage. Similarly, Alexander Nazaryan is neither a sociologist nor a sociolinguist, so perhaps it’s not fair to criticize him for his casual speculation about the relationship between grammar and morality.”

    Why isn’t it fair? It would be one thing if he was speculating in a bull session over beers. But he chose to flaunt his ignorance by entering into formal public discourse. The fact that he is unqualified the topic of his choice is hardly exculpatory.

    Author’s gravatar

    I agree with Richard Hershberger. Nazaryan has entered the lists, making sociolinguistic charges against Zimmerman. He’s entirely fair game. If he doesn’t want his theories criticized, he shouldn’t publish them.

    Author’s gravatar

    I was being more sarcastic than I realized. Yes,the two situations really are different.
    Zimmerman is a poor sap who made a big mistake and is desperately trying to save his skin. We’ll give him a break (at least on linguisitc grounds – I do not support vigilantism in any way).
    Nazaryan is an an opinionator expressing his views in the public media, and it is quite OK to criticize those views (as I did, too). Plus, we can learn something from the exchange, so I have no objection to Nazaryan expressing his views. Nobody died as a result, so no harm, no foul.

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