My boss, the big boss, is a smart man. He is a leader in a big institution. The last time I ran into him he asked me how I was. “How are you, Aidan?” And I responded “doin’ good, Jeff.” He immediately corrected me. He said, “Aidan, ‘doing well,’ you’re a literary man, you should know that.” I looked at him and said gently, not wishing to be obstreperous – though I think he already sees me that way for other reasons – I said, “I tend to opt for the colloquial.” His blank face meant he either had not heard me or did not understand. The first time I came across this in the US I was surprised. I had always associated such slavish adherence to grammatical rules with the British upper crust. As an Irishman — in Dublin not only are we prone to neologize when we feel the need, but we also tend to treat grammar a bit like a potter treats clay — I had often had my usage of the English language corrected by the English. On one occasion in the upper middle class Devonshire home of an English girlfriend I had met in Paris, I remember saying ‘The kids I used to teach in the prison system in Dublin don’t do manners.” You can imagine the response of this Judge and his wife. Apparently ‘kids’ are young goats and only young goats, and ‘don’t do manners’ should have been rendered ‘do not behave in a mannerly fashion.’ They seemed to miss the point, so I explained that it wasn’t just that they were unmannerly but that they purposely dismissed a certain kind of ‘manners’ (using a knife and fork in a particular way, or saying ‘how do you do’ on first meeting instead of ‘what’s the story?’) as having nothing to do with them. (How do you do what? I used to wonder.) They had their own modes of behavior, their own manners – not using harsh language in front of older women, for example.
This kind of politics of grammar gets even more interesting when it crops up in the literary context or with regard to race relations in the US. To suggest that the phrase “He aksed me out to see Jennifer Hudson…” is wrong, misses the point. It’s a conscious riff on ‘ask,’ which is what white people say, and ‘we’ can say what ‘we’ want, and you ‘don’t make no rules’ that apply to ‘us.’ Recently, I joined a writers’ group and I met Meg. (Not her real name). Meg is an American white woman, with a Master’s degree from a famous British university. The particular text I chose to share with Meg (she is a fine, minimalist, Carveresque writer herself) was one that was written in a third person narrative, that shifted in and out of the perspectives of other characters (what I believe is called in academic parlance ‘free indirect discourse’) and shifted tense mid-paragraph to achieve a particular oral, storytelling effect. This is really just the way I would instinctively tell a story. For example, me telling my Mom at eighteen years old why I lost my job, “Yesterday, my boss said ‘You ignorant Irish mick, who do you think you are?’ And he’s standing there all superior like, his pot belly straining the button above the buckle on his belt, his last wisp of hair erect in the wind, ‘I’m your worst nightmare,’ says I, ‘I’m an educated thug, a literary man who speaks like a street urchin, think about that you baldy f***’ ” … and so on. Meg tells me that I am not supposed to do that, that it is just not done, that as the ‘author’ — whether oral or written — I should be the authority that obeys and uses the rules of grammar. In this case, the rule is that you maintain the tense that you start with, so if the incident happened yesterday, then all the verbs should be in the past tense.
As you can see by now, there are philosophical and political questions that arise for me with regard to the points of view of my boss, Meg and the white folks who dismiss ebonics. The fact is that that’s the actual way I might tell a story orally: begin with the verb that locates it in time: the past, then continue with the verb that brings the action right before our eyes: the present. Meg says (‘said’) that editors and agents will (‘would’) never accept this. It is simply wrong, and they would have to ‘correct’ it before it could be published.
This is interesting. Literature, art in general, for me, both as a viewer/reader and as a creator/writer is a place of free play, a place where possibilities are toyed with, a place where rules are tested for viability, and the boundaries of perception are stretched by challenging the limits of grammar. Yes, you have to know the rules to make yourself understood, but you learn them unconsciously through usage. After that, creative writing has to be a free space wherein all kinds of fun, insight and powerful feeling can be experienced. It is a serious game that can pose serious philosophical questions: why can the perspective in a narrative not shift at will, given the fundamental truth that the author is the one person who can be in the mind of all her characters, and therefore, at any second, might choose to be in whichever character’s head she feels like? Might choose to have the author and the character share perspective as in free indirect discourse? I’m kind of treating this in a postmodern way, but Jane Austen used this kind of shifting and melding of perspective in her narratives.
Grammar is meant to help describe how communication works, not tell people how to communicate. Put another way, language usage is alive and primary, and grammar is secondary and static, and forever trying to keep up with what people do and say. (This is why dictionaries and grammars have to be regularly updated: the split infinitive rule is all but defunct, except when it affects meaning.) Effective communication arises out of usage, not out of rules and not out of schooling. Yes, one can learn the rules of grammar — it is a very interesting subject, but the speaker and the poet at the end of the day lead grammar by the nose. If a community uses and understands a particular usage (my mother and other Dubliners would often say, ‘I’ve went’), you cannot say it is wrong. All you can say is that the example in question is a local variation on this grammatical rule. I’m not particularly interested in making an academic argument, but if you’re interested in that side of things, you could do worse than start with Randolph Quirk’s The Use of English, an old text book that I remember admiring.