Grammar with Ketchup
Natalia J. Garland
Writing an informal essay is like putting ketchup on a hot dog.
Purists believe that anything other than mustard on a hot dog is
an abomination. Depending on what part of the country you live
in, your favorite hot dog restaurant might also consent to
toppings of relish, sauerkraut, chili, chopped onions, or even
pickles--but never ketchup. I like both traditional and regional
hot dogs, but sometimes I like my hot dog slathered with ketchup.
When I began writing
informal essays for publication on the internet, I immediately
encountered problems with grammar. I found it impossible to be a
purist. There are several reasons. (1) Language changes over
time. (2) Sentences and paragraphs look different on a webpage
than on a typewritten page. (3) There are issues of
confidentiality and liability which require careful word choice.
(4) The profession of social work has its own jargon. (5) An
informal essay on the internet is a hybrid of an academic paper
and a conversation.
Grammar Is Not
(1) The rules of
grammar have changed since I was a youngster, and even since the
last time I did college-level work. Unless you are currently in
school, or have children in school, you probably are not aware of
these changes. For example, capitalization is no longer required
in the title of a work, except for the first word. I could have
written the title of this essay as Grammar with ketchup.
Likewise, the Amazon River is now the Amazon river.
Even though I am not a grammar (or hot dog) purist, it is
difficult to adjust to such changes because it intuitively feels
Periods are no
longer required in abbreviations such as U.S.A. When I was
a girl, my paper would have gotten a red mark if I had written
USA. There is also a tendency toward compound words,
rather than the use of hyphenated words or two separate words.
The older forms are still acceptable, but children nowadays are
being taught different rules than my generation.
(2) Essays are more
difficult to read on the internet than in a book. Computer
monitor screens are hard on the eyes. Sometimes I have used
short paragraphs to make reading easier, and to make the overall
appearance of the webpage neater. In an academic paper, I would
use much longer paragraphs. I have also followed the trend
toward compound words, since I have no control over sentence
break points on an H.T.M.L. webpage. On a typewritten page, I can
control the margins and the lines of type.
Here are some
typical compound words which I use: healthcare, childcare,
caretaker. Other authors might, for example, write child
care. On a webpage, however, if the line breaks after the
word child, and the next line begins with care, it
is a little more difficult to read. On a typewritten page, this
can be controlled by manually breaking the line before the word
child, or by formatting for a justified text. For the
same reason, I have wherever feasible made compound words when
using prefixes such as pre, de, sub, re, non.
(3) Most of my
essays contain clumsy qualifiers which I use to alert and remind
the reader that I am writing from subjective experience. These
qualifiers are necessary to protect me regarding issues of
confidentiality and liability. Here are some examples of these
expressions: it seems that, my view is, I believe, I think,
personally, sort of, perhaps, probably, possibly, some, most,
many. I would prefer cleaner writing, but these qualifiers
make it clear that I take responsibility for my opinions and that
I am not speaking on behalf of the social work profession.
(4) There is certain
social work jargon that does not fit the rules of grammar. A
blatant example of this is my use of the word type to mean
a kind of. However, in the worlds of social work and
psychology, we often speak of types of people. For example,
we speak of personality types. Similarly, I use what I call
ize-words. The ize-words may or may not be grammatically
correct: humanize, stabilize, infantilize, neutralize,
victimize, normalize. Some of these words appear in the
dictionary, but a dictionary is a mere listing of words currently
in use regardless of grammatical correctness.
It gets worse. I
use forward slashes. When describing human relationships, I use
the forward slash to indicate this. Some examples are
parent/child, mother/daughter, therapist/patient,
employer/employee. I prefer the use of a slash over a hyphen
because these words do not follow the meaning of hyphenated words.
What is a parent-child? A child who is also a parent? The
use of parent/child, however, makes it clear this refers to
the relationship between parent and child.
(5) Writing an
informal essay is like having a conversation with the reader,
except that the rules of grammar are more important when writing
than when talking. Moreover, the structure of an academic paper
is formal, while the flow of a conversation is informal even
though the same topics can be discussed. I found myself wanting to
use the old academic standards to which I was accustomed. But I
was forced to innovate or modify rules of grammar in order to
communicate in a relaxed and comfortable manner.
Leaning toward the
academic approach, I chose to use underlining and quotation marks
according to the rules. I reserved my use of italics for made-up
words, and to show emphasis or distinction. Then I developed an
irregular use of shifts in person because I felt it helped rather
than hindered comprehension. From one paragraph to the next, I
sometimes use I, you, we, they; and less frequently
he or one. This is a matter of practicality and
It is common in
everyday conversation to use their, they, them (third
person plural) for the singular indefinite person. During the
pre-feminist days in which I grew up, only the generic he
was permitted in written work. But with the impact of feminism,
this was considered sexist. People began using the awkward he
or she, and his or her, and then he/she. Later
on, some people began mixing their use of he and she,
using the two pronouns alternately from chapter to chapter.
Authors would often preface their books with an explanation of how
they were going to gramatically express equality of the sexes.
My decision was to
use their, they, them in the informal essay. In formal
academic work, I would probably use the old-fashioned, visually
compact, and easy-to-pronounce he. It seems unnecessarily
strict, however, to insist that English speakers avoid their,
they, them in written work. If some rules for capitalization
and periods have been eliminated, then why not permit us to use
their, they, them which is very appropriate to the English
language? In French this would be ghastly, but in English it
is my use of numbers. Sometimes I like to number my paragraphs.
It helps to keep ideas orderly and prevent paragraphs from
becoming disjointed. This is especially true when the main topic
involves several subtopics. Of course, I could use second-level
headings (and sometimes I do), but some essays just seem more
coherent with a numbered paragraph structure. It saves space,
and therefore internet loading time, on the webpage because I do
not have to fill in with extra words to make a smooth transition
between paragraphs. I can get straight to the point.
Finally, if you do
not like ketchup on your hot dogs, then do not even bother to read
my Bibliography Notes. Regarding consulted sources, however, it
is permissible to devise one's own style of list. My list is a
combination of footnotes and bibliography, intended for handy
usefulness. It is simple without being cryptic, and readable
without being wordy. It is arranged so that I can list sources
systematically and add helpful comments as well.
Then and Now
When I was in
graduate school, students relied heavily on two books for grammar
and writing instructions: The Elements of Style, by Strunk
and White; and Student's Guide, by Turabian. These books
were commonly, if not affectionately, nicknamed the Strunk
and the Turabian. The Strunk is still around, now
in its Fourth Edition (1999), and was recently made available in
an illustrated version (2005).
Compared to twenty
years ago, there are now a myriad of grammar books in the
bookstores. All books seem to teach the same rules regarding the
parts of speech (nouns, pronouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs,
prepositions, conjunctions, interjections), punctuation (periods,
commas, semicolons, quotation marks, etc.), and mechanics
(capitals, underlining, italics, abbreviations). There are
variations, however, regarding the citation of sources.
If you are writing
a paper for school, your professor should tell you which citation
style is preferred for the class. The Chicago Manual of
Style, used in the humanities, is based on the old
Turabian. The MLA Handbook for Writers of Research
Papers, which is the citation system of the Modern Language
Association, is used for English papers and some humanities.
This is the system now taught in the high schools. The
Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association
is used in psychology and social sciences. Younger generations
may find this information redundant. Older prospective students
and writers, however, may need to be updated.
For the sake of
consistency, I use The Little, Brown Handbook as a
reference for correct grammar. This textbook provides thorough
instructions for college-level writing. There are several
other such books on the market--it is a matter of personal choice.
I use Practical English Usage as a secondary source. This
book is "...a dictionary of problem points...," and is
very convenient when I need quick help. Both of the above books
give special attention to foreign learners. Sometimes, I go back
to the old, slim copies of Strunk and Turabian
just to get my bearings.
It is not easy. I
become nostalgic for the days of firm rules, the days of the
all-beef dog with mustard. Yet, I feel conflicted. I like
choices and variety. I like having the option to develop clarity
in my own way. I would never pour pancake syrup on my grammar,
but squeezing out some bright red ketchup helps to make sense of
rules that are complex and ever changing.
(Written 01/16/06: bibliography available.)
Until we meet