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“It’s Only Ugly Because It’s New And You Don’t Like It”

“It’s Only Ugly Because It’s New And You Don’t Like It”

Geoff Amidei's picture
Geoff Amidei
February 15th, 2011

If you are short on time and you don’t want to read the full post below, but you like language and type and design, click this link right now: Stephen Fry on Language. Just do it. It will make you smile.

Somewhere in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Joan Didion writes, “Grammar is a piano I play by ear.” That pretty much describes my youthful relationship to grammar. As a kid and a teenager, I had enough innate feel for the way words are generally arranged in our mother tongue that I could get the grammar right, or pretty close to right, without knowing the rules.  This is more or less how I got through the language arts portion of my lower and higher education. But that center wasn’t going to hold.

My first job out of college was at a small PR firm. In those days PR firms were, among other things, safe havens for stifled journalists, frustrated novelists, and would-be English professors. As you might imagine, my early press releases came back to me bleeding, with helpful editorial comments staunching all the broken and lacerated grammar rules, the existence of which I was only vaguely aware.  So I had to learn the rules, which I did. I developed a pretty good working understanding of grammar.

At the PR firm, I didn’t want to look stupid. There, knowing grammar carried with it a certain cache. In a way it was just table stakes, but there was also a way in which a command of grammar afforded you a certain amount of power.  If you knew where to stick the comma, or not to split an infinitive, or, in my case, even what an infinitive was, there was always something about which you could be right. But there was a pit, and I fell in. I became rigid.

I left the PR firm and did many things, and wrapped myself tighter and tighter in the protective cloak of grammar rules. And I developed (and maybe even cultivated) a little reputation as a grammar guy, aka a “comma effer.” The problem was that grammar for me became a form of personal protection and my claim to value (I was grammar guy), and it became less a tool in service of clear communication of important content. Worse, it started to become a barrier to my productivity and enjoyment in the use of language. I so readily wielded the rules, so concerned myself with being right, that I was sometimes constipated by fear for being caught wrong. I’ve been working on changing this for years.  

So imagine my delight when I stumbled upon (literally while stumbling with stumbleupon.com) this piece of “kinetic typography animation”: Stephen Fry on Language.  Fry articulates better than most the problem with the rigidity I had succumbed to, and why, as Emerson put it, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” The animation was created by Australian designer Matt Rogers based on the 2008 essay by  Fry, Don’t Mind Your Language… .

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