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Grammar with Ketchup

Natalia J. Garland

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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 Perfect

(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 wrong.

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 style.

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 feels natural.

Another irregularity 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.

Grammar Books 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 again..............stay sane.

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Copyright 2006 Natalia J. Garland