NotEs fRom a GrAmMAr aNarcHist

As a literary anarchist I am writing a book on grammar and thought I would share some of my rules of thumb in hopes others might find them useful.

1. Never end a sentence in.

2. Alliteration is fine. People like it and it makes you seem clever. Whoever first said it should be avoided was an idiot. Watch: When writing whimsically while waiting wistfully wondering whether women wrap whitefish willfully wiggle wildly. See wasn’t that nice?

3. Commas are a constant source of worry for people. Just stop worrying about it. Here’s what I do. If I feel like people expect to see them I have a random number generator that gives me commas about 20% of the time. At the end of each word I throw the dice as it were and use a comma if I get a hit. But in modern times you don’t really need them. They are just used to signal when to take a breath and in today’s world without tuberculosis people don’t need to cough as often so the comma has become a relic of the past when people like Keats had to stop to cough. The comma in a long sentence was a useful place to do that. Some people say they clarify meaning. My opinion about this is people are too coddled today. Back in my day we had to struggle to find meaning and it made us tougher readers. Now with commas ‘marking’ every little clarification people are getting lazier. Take the classic (about which whole books have been written (not very useful books in my opinion (unless you want to do grammarish things that are really hard (and confusing)))) “A panda eats shoots and leaves.” My heavens if the panda was in a bar and there is a dead person in the next sentence and no panda after the first sentence you know what the clause meant. Sheesh. If you read the sentence in a field guide about panda dietary habits then you know what the sentence means. Only lazy dumb people need commas. Clarifying meaning is for sissies.

4. Worrying about spelling serves no useful purpose whatsoever as long as people understand what you mean. How you spelled it doesn’t matter. Wittgenstein has shown us that the medium is the message. Believe it and relax. My heavens we even have spell crackers. Just relax. And eat them. Or shoot them and leaves.

5. Know your audience. Often we say things in a way that makes it hard for people to understand us because we haven’t identified the audience. For example suppose you want to say “There is my wife.” Easy enough but suppose you are speaking to a Continental philosopher? That would be completely mysterious to them and inappropriately convey the wrong message. If such a philosopher is your audience you should say something like “Emerges there Dasein in a particular horizon of perspective which conceals and reveals and takes too much and gives too much away leaving only a surface of secondary qualia available to my inspection but the bracketed epoche of which obligates me to an ‘other’ to whom I am bound with particular ethical obligations permanently owed yet not releasing me from embracing the demands of the face of other others into whose sphere I have been thrown unwilled into a hostile world save for that one for whom the sexual is not sublimated in an avoidance of touch and procreation—allowing human autopoiesis of form and structure to capture the-meaning-that-is-inherent-to-beings-in-the-face-of-non-being to be framed ungiven save by the self-actualized protoself.” To which they will reply comprehendingly (assuming they speak your language–which many do) “I see. It is a pleasure to meet her.”

Again know your audience.

6. The use of ‘who’ and ‘whom’ is arbitrary. Use whichever suits your mood but mostly don’t use whom. It is considered pretentious and suggests a lack of daring and courage. For heaven’s sake there is nothing worse in the world of being guilty of hyperurbanism.

7. Always italicize titles. Unless the italics are inherent in the title then unitalicize. If this is confusing just use all caps in comic sans which is becoming more and more accepted as an alternative to italics.

8. A word on style. Not many years ago a pair of nefarious fascist grammarians terrorized the writing world with demands so severe and onerous that some of us who remember those years still shudder in fear. Their influence can still be felt in pockets of afflicted souls who have been under the aegis of this pair’s numerous disciples and acolytes. Today this writing cult resembles nothing so much as Kim Jong Un’s North Korea in terms of the domination and control they exerted on the written word—and in the swift punishment inflicted on those who dared question the regime. You may think those days are over but there are still those who teach writing who keep dog-eared copies in the dark recesses of their filing cabinets only to be brought out when they find a student of such naivety that they think they can get away with it. How often in those days when walking across a campus I was approached by a well-meaning woman (or man) who suddenly reached into a hidden pocket of their trench coat handed me a copy of the dreaded “Shrunk and White” and whispered ‘Here try it you’ll like it. First one is free!” If such happens to you run. It is a book to be feared. Really. Run.

9. Use a high ratio of adverbs to verbs. I shoot for about 5 to 1 happily merrily seductively onerously crankily.

10. One way to check the grammar is to translate from English into Chinese from there into Dutch then to Lithuanian and back to English. So take the sentence: In those days I climbed trees without regard to the bones in my hand that felt under my skin like the larvae of moths and dragonflies. It becomes: In those days I climbed a tree hand bones of my skin as not to moth and dragonfly larvae sense. This is exactly what I meant so you know the grammar in the original was correct.

I hope this helps. Grammar can be tricksy and unsettling. Once you realize it does not matter whatsoever you’ll find so much more joy. Which is to say: Syntax is not naughty and anxiety. Once you realize it does not matter what you find so much joy.


  1. Well it took much less time than I expected for Scott B to be displaced as writer of the funniest BCC post this week.

  2. This was the most perfect thing written in ever by whom. I need to read it, again, to take it all in.

    Seriously, Steve, thanks. Yowza!

  3. FMH had a fun thread along these lines, a few years ago:

    “…I informed my History of Civ. professor how fervently I felt regarding becoming prostate before the Lord. Ahem.”

    Spell check won’t help you, if you use the wrong work spelled correctly.

  4. Brilliant.

  5. Jason K. says:

    Your brain is a beautiful thing, Peck.

  6. Steven, thou art sublime.

  7. Angela C says:


  8. A Happy Hubby says:

    This ain’t half bad, I think.

  9. Mark B. says:

    Forget everything I have said, or what … Brigham Young … or whomsoever has said on this subject, because Steve P has spoken.

  10. “Clarifying meaning is for sissies.”

    I think you mean “clarifying, meaning is for sissies.”

  11. Mary Lythgoe Bradford says:

    Miss Mason from my high school would be shocked and appalled!

  12. David Elliott says:

    Strunk and White. Just sayin’.

  13. Kevin Barney says:

    Also, nobody cares whether you use the Oxford comma. Or put one space or two after a period.

  14. Some people say to never split infinitives, but it doesn’t especially matter.

  15. The Book of Mormon is the most correct of any book on earth, and it has commas.

  16. “Or put one space or two after a period.”

    Easy, Kevin. Two spaces after a period is the work of a philistine. So let it be written, so let it be done.

  17. Maebridge says:

    I have to put two spaces after a period. It is a muscle memory and I can not change it because I am too old. Any person whom counts the spaces after a period is guilty of age discrimination.

  18. Yeah.

  19. Tracy Hall says:

    It is an interesting and evocative choice to unify creatures as disparate as caterpillars and naiads within a single simile.

  20. I love this, Steve!

  21. Left Field says:

    One space after a period is ugly. Ugly, ugly, ugly. Whoever says otherwise has no sense of aesthetics for the written word. They will take away my double space when they pry it from my cold, dead spacebar thumb.

    When they chronicle the fall of human civilization, they will date the beginning of the process to the first Bozo who said a single space looks better, and the first Bozo to say that Coca-Cola tastes good. And the fall was complete with the next Bozo who believed them. After that, humanity just followed the proverbial lemmings.

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