About My Pet Peeves in Grammar, Usage and Style

by Taylor MacHenry

Up front, I admit that I nitpick.

It comes from a lifetime of writing and editing (rather my more than 50 years as a professional writer and not counting my childhood and adolescence). I hate having an editor using red ink on my page, correcting anything of which I should know better, mainly grammar, usage and style. Also spelling. Thus, the OCD nitpicking began. So, forgive me if I hair-split. (see a cliche, and I’m not going to bother to check if the hyphenated verb is correct, though I believe that it is).

Today, I observe that grammar has become the common blanket that covers usage and style too, thus the entire Handbook for Writers has become grammar.

That given, perhaps my most irritating thorn that has festered in my old skin for years is the misuse of words and use of non-words. At least words and non-words by my definition of them.

Much egregious to my dinosaur ways, appears the language drift from words to non-words to acronyms used as words caused by text messages and social media. A glance at my granddaughter’s text messages on my smartphone (and what makes it so smart?) and I realize that perhaps (more likely than not) I have probably joined Geoffrey Chaucer in the dark halls of language arts Valhalla. These days, I might as well be writing in the Middlesex Dialect of English.

Therefore, should I simply update my personal writers’ handbook and move forward? Language is communication, and if, “OBTW” or “IMHO,” finds meaning among today’s readers, then BAM, use them. For those who do not yet understand acronymic shorthand language, let me translate: OBTW = Oh By The Way; IMHO = In My Humble Opinion, and BAM = By All Means.

This thorn in my ancient writer’s hide festers from long ago when I began to take notice of the news anchor using words like “Flammable” in place of “Inflammable.” Flammable began existence as a non-word because when safety engineers painted Inflammable on the sides and backends of gasoline trucks, people misunderstood the word to mean that the fuel inside would not catch fire nor explode. If a company painted Non-Inflammable on their trucks, peoples’ heads exploded. To them, Inflammable meant not flammable, meaning that a thing would flam or not flam. The late comedian George Carlin also suffered from a similar thorn in his side when he too noticed that dumbness had now taken over the English language. Dick Cavett, who wrote jokes for Tonight Show host, Johnny Carson, alongside Carlin, likewise shared our language angst.

So, as a writer, I feel my age and I suffer for it. I don’t understand acronymic language, and I groan at the idea that when people use capital letters rather than words, they can often have a multiplicity of meanings. (I also note that I wince when someone uses the word Capitol when meaning Capital, or There when they meant Their, and Facebook’s automatic word checker automatically changes Their into There when Their was the correct word. Or from left field, They’re appears.)

All this rambling simply begs to ask the question: Has English-speaking society just become dumb? Have our communities of humanity just become too stupid to care? And there I go judging people. Another mark of the writing dinosaur. Move over, Mister Chaucer. Dust off a rock for me so that I can rest my weary nitpicking writer’s butt on it.

Oh, and regarding a common pet peeve of people writing endless verbiage in a story without paragraph breaks, I have to smile. Yes, breaking up long-winded diatribes into short paragraphs does greatly improve readability. But what makes me smile is that Jack Kerouac and his “Original Scroll” of his novel, On the Road, comes to my mind. I am a Kerouac devotee. I am part of the Dharma Bums wandering the hinterlands in search of something better.

I also began my professional writing career as a news reporter for a newspaper that printed its daily pages on a rotary press that used hot lead melted and poured into casts to make the printing plates. These casts came from Linotype machines that also spit out words on hot lead. We received our news stories on teletype machines (pre-computer era, not really that long ago), and they used large rolls of yellow paper.

As a reporter, rather than feeding sheet after sheet of typing paper into a typewriter (yes, a mechanical typewriter), I kept a large roll of teletype paper suspended with a coat hanger on the back of my typing table. The yellow paper fed the typewriter, and I typed endlessly. At the -30- mark, I ripped the paper off the typewriter, tossed it into the editor’s in-basket and began another take on an ongoing story or I wrote a new one.

I hated when my typewriter ribbon finally wore so dim that I had to change it. The interruption of thought transference to page seemed brutal to my being. But even then, I broke my stories into paragraphs, divided by logical thought (check out your handbook for writers regarding paragraphs, they do have logical breaks).

Jack Kerouac came from this same school of writing shared by many of us: Lazy. Well, not really Lazy but, let’s call it, Efficient. A roll of yellow teletype paper and a fresh ribbon in his Remington Standard or Underwood, and Jack was a free man. Free to let his thoughts flow through his fingers onto the yellow paper racked around the platen (rubber roller) of his typewriter. Thought transference! Pure and unfettered.

And Jack Kerouac could not be troubled by Strunk and White nor their ideas that addressed logical paragraph breaks and order. Jack thought and wrote and only took his right hand off the keys long enough to give the typewriter’s carriage return a hard whack to the left.

Kerouac’s first edition manuscript of On the Road was one long paragraph typed on a roll of yellow teletype paper. It represented his uplifted middle finger shoved skyward to the smug, judgmental publishing community of his day.

Although Viking Press, in 1957, published On the Road, editors broke the manuscript into logical paragraphs, conformed it to the Chicago Book of Style and published it regardless of the artistic meaning that Jack had tried to show to the world with no punctuation, no paragraph breaks and no place for a reader to take a breath–his virtual raised middle finger to conformity.

Years later, after Jack Kerouac had joined Lenny Bruce, Dylan Thomas and other nonconforming critics of society in the place where their spirits now dwell for eternity (I’m pretty sure that George Carlin and Charlie Bukowski reside there with them), some rebellious editors at the house of G. P. Putnam and Berkley books, which morphed into Penguin-Putnam, then Penguin USA, that has today become Penguin-Random House, fought for and succeeded in publishing Jack Kerouac’s Original Scroll of On the Road.

Kerouac’s resistance to conformity uplifts my soul. A nudist among fully-dressed literary compliance. I recommend reading it.

After all, I too am a rebel. I begin sentences with conjunctions. And that is that!

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