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Crazy Grammar


Because we use words, we must use grammar to string them together. “Grammar” has a telling history, being related to “glamour” and “grimoire.” Glamour has come down some in the world, referring now mostly to Tinsel Town denizens, jet-setters, all that social fluff. But originally it referred to magic, to witchery. Similarly, a grimoire was a sorcerer’s handbook, a book of spells. Hocus Pocus, Dominocus (a parody of church Latin) and all that. So grammar, back when most people were illiterate, suggested a lot more than the antiseptic arrangement of nouns, verbs, adjectives, and participles in Reed-Kellogg diagrams that the good nuns taught me in the Eisenhower years and that I would teach to college sophomores so many decades later. It suggested preternatural mysteries and the black arts. Especially to the uninitiated, grammar could be scary stuff.

Here are two grammar stories, one scary and one silly. But I’m not sure which is which.

Jared Loughner, the deeply disturbed young man who opened fire on Rep. Gabby Giffords and others in Tucson many months ago, used to rant, in his college classes and on his website, about grammar. Most of us, who now associate grammar with grammar school rather than sorcery school, were non-plused. That’s because, unlike Loughner, we had not been studying the works and pomps of one David Wynn Miller. (Or :David-Wynn :Miller as he prefers it. More on that anon.) Miller was unexceptional, so far as I can tell, until he lost a court case that I think had to do with his divorce and the settlement that followed from it. He felt he had been screwed over. And then he had his big insight: our hijacked grammar was the problem! Fix the grammar and you fix the world! He is also very big on punctuation, particularly the colon (no colon jokes, please; the two words are not even etymologically related).

So he came up with the Mathematical Interface for Language, aka Quantum-Math-Communications and Language. Quoting from the Wikipedia entry:

his language is for the stopping-claims of the Theft, Cheating, Fraud, Slavery and
War [and uses] sentences that begin with prepositional phrases[,] using the word For,
are at least thirteen words long, and have many more nouns than verbs. According to
Miller, only nouns have legal authority. The language has an abundance of punctuation.

Not even his acolytes could understand all this—but isn’t it ever the lot of genius not to be understood? And Miller does denominate himself a genius and many other things, including King of Hawaii. He gives seminars around the world, and people—many with letters after their names—pay serious money to sit at his feet. Most of his work is defending tax cheats with his authority and expertise. The fact that he has never won a case has not given him pause or discouraged his adherents. About that name: “the addition of hyphens and colons to one’s name turns one from an ordinary, taxable human into a non-taxable ‘prepositional phrase.’” This is thaumaturgy by a real pro! And the only law that he respects is maritime law, because we are all on this ship that is sailing through space. I will spare you any more, but you can Google up a video in which, bolstered by creative numerology, he expatiates on the Mayan end-time prediction for 2012, on secret plans for world domination (the USPO is behind it as far as I can tell) and some other odds and ends (the Egyptians, Masonic beliefs, Mormon beliefs). It is truly breathtaking.

Then there was (though I hope he is still with us) Israel Jayakaran, and let me quickly say that he was as sane as you or I, that he didn’t belong in the same drawer as David Miller at all. But his vision was not my vision and I found his enthusiasm unsettling to say the least.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Israel Jayakaran was a gentleman in India who somehow found my name and made contact with me back in 2004/2005. He described himself as “a post graduation Electronics and Communication engineer [who] was pushed into teaching English.” Pushed he may have been, but Israel was nothing if not conscientious and determined to teach his students right. To this end, he took up the study of English grammar in a big way and hoped that I would be his sounding board. I studied the book chapters he sent me and tried my best to understand them, but this grammar that he was coming up with was immensely, unbelievably, impossibly complex. When I proposed the standard ten sentence patterns, he assured me that there were 54 sentence patterns and 18(!) tenses. He then did some complicated math to demonstrate that the final number was in fact 126 sentence patterns and that every sentence has a grammar part and a (separate) meaning part. “Israel,” I wrote, “I admit that traditional grammar rules are not perfect, but they are infinitely simpler than what you propose (I fear for your students!) and they have worked for a hundred years. Over here we have a saying, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ I urge you to take that to heart.”

Though we remained professionally courteous (“For all I know, Israel, I may just lack the intelligence to understand what you are getting at”; “Hope you had a fine trip to Alaska, Jerry, and I’m sure the vacation was well deserved”), we both knew that things were going downhill like a luge. After a month of ping-ponging across the Pacific, we called it quits, wishing each other well.

Maybe grammar is magic after all. Look what it can turn men into!



Meet Your Macinstructor

Jerome Shea is an emeritus professor of English at the University of New Mexico, where he still teaches his classical tropes course every fall and his prose style course every spring. He has been the Weekend Wonk since January of 2007. His email is shea@macinstruct.com.


 
                          





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