Saturday, 22 November 2014

Transformational Grammar

Well, actually I know nothing about transformational grammar, except that it has something to do with Noam Chomsky, and I don't think it has anything to do with what I want to talk about, which is the transformation I have noticed in recent years in the way educated people, or at least young educated people, speak.

I work for the student society at the University of British Columbia. I don't hang out with the students, but I interact with them a fair bit. Also, my colleagues tend to be of a younger demographic, and it was one of these colleagues who first shocked me back in the late 90's when he talked about some meeting he was going to, saying: “Her and I will talk about tuition tomorrow.”

Actually, I don't remember what he said they would talk about; what I do remember is his use of “her and I.” Now, I was brought up to learn a certain sort of grammar in which subjective case was distinguished from objective case. The pronouns I, he, she, they were to be used when they were the subject of a sentence; me, him, her, them was for when these pronouns were used as objects.

Everyone still follows that distinction when there's only one subject or one object, I think. I don't think I've heard people say, “Her will talk to us about tuition tomorrow” or “Me want to go fishing.” (Well, maybe infant would-be fishermen say the latter.)

The change has happened with compound subjects and objects. I would have said, “She and I will meet about tuition” or “John and I will talk about tuition.” But now people will say “Her and I.” I confess that I hear that phrase so much that “She and I” has come to sound a tad precious to my ears, a little stuffy, like something out of a book or out of another century (which of course it is, just like me).

I think I have heard “Me and John will talk about tuition”; I hesitate I suppose because I can't believe that's what people say now, but I'm in fact pretty sure that's what university students and the others I encounter at the student society do say.

Some people would be appalled. In some moods, I'm appalled. It's the fault of the elementary schools, teaching self-esteem and creativity instead of grammar rules, they say. And maybe it is. But I'm not sure fault is the right word. The language always changes. The authors of Beowulf would have been shocked at the way we talk: you use the same word for “the” all the time? Whether it's a subject, an object, an indirect object, a plural, a masculine, or a feminine?

(Yes, Old English had masculine and feminine grammatical forms, like French. In fact, it had a neuter form too, like German, which is not that surprising, since it was German, the German dialect of those Angles and Saxons who travelled from Germany to take over Britain from King Arthur's hardy Celts. But that's another story.)

We have lost the feminine, masculine, neuter distinctions. We have lost the 16 different ways to say “the.” We have lost the distinction between subject and object for nouns; we have retained it only for pronouns (I versus me, he versus him, etc.) -- and now even that may be going.

I wonder if one day “she” will disappear, and we will only have “her.” As between “me” and “I,” that's a tougher one. Though “me” seems to be ousting “I” in “Me and John will discuss tuition,” in places where I was trained to use “me,” “I” has taken over. “That's between John and I,” people say. Or “He gave that to John and I.” There you have “I” used where traditional grammar would say you have to use the objective case (“me”).

So what do we have now (acknowledging that we may be in transition):

Traditional 20th-century grammar:
She and I will meet tomorrow.
John and I will meet tomorrow.
That's between me and John.
He gave that to me and John.

Young People's 21st-century grammar:
Her and I will meet tomorrow.
Me and John will meet tomorrow.
That's between John and I.
He gave that to John and I.

Except the last two sentences may be more common in a slightly older demographic, among people who remember being corrected for using “me” with another pronoun (“Me and John are going out to play”) and deduced that “I” is always to be used when there's another noun or pronoun.

Now I'm not sure how the younger demographic would say those last two sentences. One thing I am sure about is that pronoun cases are interchanged much more readily these days, prompting some to call for a return to the basics in the schools.

“Her and I” is not what I was taught, but I wonder if it's the way of the future, and if one day “she and I” will sound as archaic as the sixteen ways to say “the” or words like “forsooth.” The language moves in mysterious ways.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Robin Williams and Modern Life

I made a comment on Facebook the other day about how after all of us had been feeling sad over Robin Williams, now a water bottle was trending on Downton Abbey: someone had left a modern-day water bottle in a picture for the show, and this historical inaccuracy was now the latest thing among Facebook people. It felt wrong somehow, I said.

Not that I necessarily wanted to wallow in Robin Williams stories for a week, and I especially was not interested in details of his death. His hilarious comedy routines, yes, but not how he took his life. Even that, though, I wouldn't want to go on forever. I'm not sure what I would have wanted, actually. My girl-friend said it was just the contrast that bothered me: the death of a great comic juxtaposed with an unimportant mistake on a TV show.

Perhaps. Perhaps I just wanted a little space after Robin. But space is what the modern world doesn't give us. It was bad enough in the old days, when newspapers had to fill their pages with something, anything, but now it's all the social media all the time, bringing us information, games, jokes, quizzes, whatever.

A recent book talks about how we've lost boredom. There used to be a time when people could get bored, but now there's no chance of that: now every minute is filled somehow, at work, at play, everywhere. There are emails and Tweets and Facebook posts and I don't know what.

And the thing is, I don't particularly have a solution to any of this, nor do I particularly want someone to come up with one. Another aspect of modern life, perhaps, is that we complain about it. So there it is, my complaint. Though complaint sounds too harsh a word. A sigh perhaps, just a sigh. A sigh over I don't know what. Life.

One time not so long ago, Craig Ferguson, my favourite late night talk show host (now soon to depart, alas), received an email in his email-reading segment asking about the Jonas Brothers. Whatever happened to them, the email asked? And Craig just shrugged a bit and said, “Well ...”

Time passes, things move on, the current big story gives way to the next big story (or the next trivial story), and then ... well, who knows? We are but a moment's sunshine.

Thursday, 26 June 2014

Free to Go

I was watching a TV crime drama tonight, a rerun of Boston Legal actually, so drama may not be the right word: it’s too full of comedy and romance, but basically drama, and I was struck by a typical dramatic moment, typical for courtroom dramas, I mean.  The jury comes back, declares the defendant Not Guilty, and the judge says, “You are free to go.”

Free to go, yes, but go where?  For days or weeks the defendant has been caught up in this drama, this challenge, this struggle: how much it defines her, how it gives meaning to this segment of her life, and then suddenly the struggle is over, the game is won, and she can go home.

I guess that will be where she goes: home.  But we haven’t even seen her at home; we’ve just seen her at her trial; that’s been her whole life, and now it’s over.  It’s a bit like working, and then retiring.  Or if not as dramatic as that, like finishing some major project and not knowing what to do next.  Where does one go when one is free to go?  Is freedom what we really want?  Maybe we want the opposite of freedom, maybe we want to have to struggle.  What is life without struggle?

I read a letter to the editor earlier today opposing euthanasia as the easy way out and arguing for suffering: suffering is what makes us human, the letter writer argued, and I wasn’t entirely convinced, but maybe …  Suffering may be going too far, but you want a little struggle in your life.  If you play a game, you want to play against someone who could beat you: you try to make sure they can’t, but if you actually know they can’t, where’s the fun in that?  To win without risk is to triumph without glory, as someone once said.

It’s the free to go part that makes me nervous.  After the trial, after the game, what then?  Wandering in a wasteland of freedom, without purpose, without direction …  Let us be bound by something and struggle to be free, and if we get free, let us struggle again.

Saturday, 7 June 2014

Partial Truths and Errors

Following up on my last post, I was thinking today about an incident a couple of evenings ago, when my girl-friend came to pick me up on campus.  “I’m in a little roundabout in front of a construction site,” she said.  Oh, that’s the New SUB, I replied, and headed off for it.

It wasn’t the New SUB, though; it was the Alumni Centre (another new construction).  But not to worry, the two new buildings are right beside each other, so it was easy to find her.

I pondered this later.  Error had led me not astray, but to the right place.  A little learning is a dangerous thing, Pope once said, so perhaps a little error is useful?  I’m not sure that’s what he had in mind; I fear he was one of the devotees of System and warned against partial knowledge in the hopes of bringing people to Full Knowledge, Complete Learning, or whatever.

I certainly agree that a little learning can be dangerous.  I once told this to a class of mine and when they asked for an example thought of my situation arriving in a city where traffic was allowed to turn right on a red light.  Having been raised in a city where red meant stop, period, I suddenly was in a state of partial and thus dangerous knowledge.  I needed to learn that in Toronto cars might be turning on me even when I thought I had the right of way.

So I’m all for fuller knowledge (and not being run over), and I know the dangers of thinking you know before you know, but you can never know all; there are always things to learn; one shouldn’t think there will be a time when your knowledge will be complete.  And sometimes a little error can lead you in the right direction.

Friday, 6 June 2014

Skepticism and Belief

I took an interesting course on Greek philosophy this week, with a little Buddhism thrown in as a fillip, and what we learned was that there are all sorts of approaches to happiness (the theme of the course), leading one of the students to ask the instructor, “But which approach to happiness do you follow?”

To which the instructor, a young thirty-something type half the age of most of the students, replied, “Aristotle says that’s the sort of thing you shouldn’t ask a young man.”

(Instructors are so much younger nowadays.)

Another student raised the issue of post-modernism.  She’s taking a course on that too, and learning of its onslaught on absolutes and its claim that everything is relative.  “What can young people believe today if they are bereft of fundamental beliefs?”  (I paraphrase.)

To which the instructor replied that his young students do still seek belief, even if there is no longer a unified foundation like medieval Christianity to rely on.

Which I would agree with.  We seem to be in the midst of developing a new world view, at least in the West or on university campuses in the West: a world view based on environmentalism, science, identity politics, and political correctness.  There are good guys and bad guys, angels and demons, in a way reminiscent of earlier philosophies and religions (more the religions than the philosophies, I’d say).

It’s a development that makes me uneasy, because just as my ancestors didn’t fit with the dominant world view in Christian Europe, so I fear I don’t fit with the believers in climate change and the evils of “white male privilege.”  But more than that, more than not fitting in with the contents of the latest beliefs, I fear I don’t fit in with the culture of belief per se – which might make me sound like a post-modernist, only I don’t believe in them either.  I’m a skeptic perhaps – or perhaps I’m an eclectic.

The upshot of our final discussion was that people today are more eclectic.  Given all the philosophies out there, people pick and choose.  I think this is true too, though it is in opposition to the drive I’ve just outlined, the drive for the one Pure Belief, the true cause.  Perhaps after this period of eclecticism, we will end (though I shouldn’t say “end”) with One Big Belief again, a new anti-religion Religion.

It’s not where I want to go, but it may be where we’re heading.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Literary Lives

I wrote a letter to the London Review of Books today.  Don’t know if they’ll print it.  I once came close to getting published in them.  They wrote saying a letter of mine was being considered for publication – but it never appeared.  Perhaps it was too late.  In those days I was months behind in my reading, so they may have felt my comments were no longer timely (referring as they did to something months old).

That didn’t stop the Times Literary Supplement years before when I published my most famous letter, the one that got me in People magazine.  You were mentioned in People, some people would ask?  They didn’t believe it.  One didn’t even believe it when I showed her a copy of the magazine.  It must be some other Sheldon Goldfarb, she said.

Uh huh.

Anyway, this time I wrote as part of my campaign to get the LRB to return to its tradition of reviewing literary biographies.  And by reviewing I mean publishing long, leisurely review-essays which present the biography themselves, so you don’t even have to read the book – and who wants to read hundreds of pages of minutiae about anyone, even a writer – and I do like reading about writers, but in bite-sized format, a few thousand words, not a few hundred pages, just enough to get the essence of the life.  I relish those.

But the LRB (and the New York Review of Books too, alas) have turned from this.  Perhaps it is the “death of the author” craze that swept academia decades ago finally percolating into the more general public journals.  Or a distrust of “essentialism,” of believing you can sum up anyone’s life in an essay, which of course you can’t really – but you can try.

The LRB and the NYRB have given up trying, at least for writers; they do seem to publish review-essay biographies of non-writers occasionally, but it’s not the same – and I should note that the NYRB may have reversed itself recently, so I have resubscribed.  One lives in hope.

Many years ago when I expressed an interest in writers’ lives, a literature professor of mine reacted dismissively.  “You’re interested in gossip?” he said.  I felt cowed.  But I’m thinking now, “No, not gossip, humanity.  I’m interested in people’s lives – though not all people’s lives – reviews of painters leave me cold.  Reviews of anyone not a writer leave me not entirely satisfied.

Now, I don’t mean I want literary criticism.  I’ve read my fair share of literary criticism for various graduate degrees.  It’s useful but seldom entertaining or enthralling.  No, what I want is to follow some writer’s life, to learn where they were born, to see them grow up, to see them become a writer, to learn how they functioned in the world.

In a way, it’s the same story over and over.  The lonely, disaffected creative person finding their voice.  Yet I love to read about them, the more the better.  It’s like when I was ten years old and had to read a new Superman comic every week, or reading yet another Agatha Christie mystery, or watching another Mentalist episode (well, they’ve gone off, so I don’t do that anymore).  It’s the pleasure of routine.  The new that is yet the same.  And I wish the LRB would give it back to me.

Sunday, 27 April 2014


I misplaced my pen today on the bus.  You may remember pens: those pre-online writing instruments that people who haven’t joined the smartphone generation still use on occasion.  I use them to make notes on books I’m reading (and you may remember books too).

Anyway, I misplaced my pen and had a moment’s angst, but then I remembered the back-up pen I carry with me just for these emergencies.  It’s a different type of pen; I don’t even know the brand: you push its top down to get it to write, and write it did, and very nicely.

So nicely that when I found the misplaced pen, I almost regretted returning the substitute to its emergency compartment in my sports bag (I was writing while on my way home from playing hockey; this way I can be both intellectual and athletic all on the same day).

Anyway, I almost regretted returning to my regular pen; wasn’t the substitute actually better?  Are all substitutes better?  Substitute teachers, back-up quarterbacks?  Well, maybe not.  But sometimes a change adds a little zest.  Who was it who said that it’s easier to be a lover than a husband because the lover only has to dazzle briefly and occasionally while the husband you’re stuck with all the time?

Okay, I looked it up; it was Balzac (that’s the wonder of Google), and he said it much more elegantly, but my point is that there may be something in novelty.  If the lover becomes the husband, though, where’s the novelty in that?  The same for the substitute teacher.

Maybe this is why it’s good to go on vacation, but also good to come back.  Which makes me think of Jung and Joseph Campbell, the hero with a thousand faces, the hero’s journey: good to get away and go slay dragons, but you shouldn’t get stuck doing that.

Well, this seems a long way from a misplaced pen, but for some reason the poor little pen has inspired me to muse about larger meanings.  Maybe it’s the grass is always greener effect.  When I was a child and visited my aunt’s house and had a grand time playing games with my cousin, I sometimes thought, Wouldn’t it be nice to live here full-time?  But maybe it wouldn’t have been at all, maybe it was only the change of pace that appealed to me, though who’s to say?

And of course I was only seeing the relatives on their best behaviour.  Out in public almost everyone seems nice and appealing, but who knows what goes on at home when the visitors are gone?

Ah, well … I have put away the emergency pen, and now must return to my regular routine.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Sentimental Pieties and the F-word

Justin Trudeau’s use of the F-word the other day led one of our national newspapers to ask its readers what they thought of that.  Many of them criticized him for a variety of reasons, but the reason that struck me, and stuck in my craw, you might say, was the claim that people who use obscenities have limited vocabularies.

On the contrary, I argued in a letter I wrote back, doesn’t it show the exact opposite?  Their vocabularies are unlimited, by good taste, decorum, whatever.

Of course, there are no doubt uneducated people out there who resort to obscenity because they know little else, but Justin Trudeau?  Or his even more famous father, who let off an F-bomb in the House of Commons of all places?  You can criticize the Trudeaus for many things, but I doubt that a limited vocabulary is one of them.

But it was not just this week’s letter-writers who conjured up this argument.  I’ve heard it many times before, and I wonder at its longevity.  Why do people believe that those who swear know few other words?  Perhaps they would just like to believe it.  Perhaps they are directing one of the strongest insults they can at the users of obscenity, calling them in effect uneducated and illiterate.

(As strong insults go, this is not much perhaps, but if you deny yourself the use of obscenities, you are perhaps limited when it comes time to express outrage.  Who indeed has the more limited vocabulary?)

Now, none of this is to advocate obscenity.  I am quite restrained in using it myself, but that doesn’t mean we should resort to falsehoods when opposing it.  And I don’t really oppose it either.  I can swear, perhaps not with the best of them, but just because I do doesn’t mean my vocabulary is limited.  It may, as I wrote originally, be just the opposite.

I wonder, then, where the argument originates about obscenity users having limited vocabularies.  Perhaps it’s meant to cow the educated and abash the rest.

It reminds me for some reason of another sentimental piety: about inner beauty being the true beauty.  It reminds me in particular of the scene in the movie Liar, Liar when the little boy voices that sentiment to his father (played by Jim Carrey).  Carrey responds, “That’s just something ugly people say.”

There are things we perhaps want to believe; perhaps we think we can be superior to those who have scared us by using swear words when we tell them that this shows their vocabulary is limited.  We, of course, have much fuller vocabularies and would never be forced to resort to four letter words. 

Well, it is perhaps a comforting belief, like the belief that the 9-11 terrorists were cowards.  For questioning that piety, Bill Maher lost his job, so I’ll be careful what I say, but it seems to me that attitudes and opinions based on wish-fulfillment are not the best guides to the truth.  We may not like the truth, but perhaps we should face it.

Friday, 28 February 2014

On Not Being the Vice-President

Long ago, in Grade 9 English, a district superintendent or some such official came to look in on us and help with a story we were studying.  I can’t remember what story it was, but there was a scene in a park with picnickers carrying their grandfathers.  And there were samovars.  Maybe it was a Russian story. 

The superintendent asked us if anything struck us as odd in the scene.  Someone ventured, “The samovars?”  “No, no,” said the superintendent, or maybe our regular English teacher, who was also there.  “That’s just a Russian teapot.”  It was the people carrying their grandfathers, which I think had struck me as odd, but too odd even to ask about.  It’s hard to raise a question when you hardly even understand something – except that’s the very thing to ask about, I learned that day.

And maybe I also learned to enjoy analyzing stories from that and also to think that it’s better to do something hands-on like analyzing a story than to be some distant superintendent, a manager supervising others who get to do the hands-on work.  I felt sorry for the District Superintendent, if not then, at least in retrospect: he was someone who knew how to get to the root of a story, making it come alive for students, but mostly his job must have been just overseeing others.

In some fields, of course, management is the prize people aim for, and some people must like managing others, but to me it’s a bit like being the coach instead of Wayne Gretzky.  You could say, of course, that an athlete, even a star athlete, or a creative writer or a comedian is doing mere grunt work.  Better to be the Vice-President in charge of whatever instead of some lowly pencil-pusher, but if pencil-pushing is somehow creative, if the work is something like Gretzky behind the net or Graham Greene producing a new novel, who wouldn’t rather be that than mired in management?

The Talent, not the manager, the literary critic, not the district superintendent.  But everyone is different, I suppose, and I suppose we need those Vice-Presidents.

When I read the first part of this blog to my girl-friend, she paused and said, “I’m a Vice-President.”

Uh oh, I said.

So let me say that I have nothing against vice-presidents, and as my girl-friend went on to tell me, sometimes she likes to do the hands-on work, but not always.  Maybe the District Superintendent was happy not to have to teach an English class every day; maybe it was nice just to do it once in a while.  I published a novel once, but haven’t since, and when I think of someone like Agatha Christie or even, yes, Graham Greene, maybe even creative work could seem tedious if you had to keep churning it out year after year.  So there you go …

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Making all the Stops

I was thinking of a Seinfeld episode the other day, the one where Kramer tells the story of how he was on a hijacked bus and had to fight the hijacker off, ending up driving the bus himself.

(It’s interesting, by the way, how this violates the old bit of writerly advice to show, not tell.  And it’s not the only time Seinfeld does this.  What to me was their most glorious episode is the one where George tells how he saved the beached whale by removing a golf ball from its blowhole.  We don’t see this at all, except for George in rolled-up pants wading out from shore.  There’s a sort of discretion in that, a cutting away from the action, another way to write not encompassed by the old writing rules.)

But I digress.  In the episode, Kramer explains how he has to grab the steering wheel because the driver has passed out, and meanwhile he’s having to fight off the hijacker, or mugger, while steering and also preserving a severed toe that he’s trying to get to the hospital.

Eventually, he explains, he was able to kick the mugger off the bus at one of the stops, to which Jerry replies, “You kept making all the stops?”  Well, says Kramer, people kept ringing the bell.

I was thinking, well, that’s life, or maybe heroism: you’re in a life-and-death struggle, you’ve got a 20-ton vehicle to control, you’re worrying about a severed toe, and yet you keep making all the stops.  Life goes on, there are things to do, so despite your headaches or heartaches or whatever else crosses your path, there are stops to make, people who keep ringing the bell and expecting you to do your job.

It reminds me of Robert Frost’s famous poem about the woods so lovely, dark, and deep, so tempting, but not tempting enough to divert the rider from keeping his promises.  To be an honourable man, says Confucius, keep your word, do your duty.

Man’s lot?  Woman’s too, of course.  We have to keep making all the stops.  It’s hard sometimes, though.

P.S. February 12:
It occurs to me, waking up this morning, that sometimes in times of stress, making all the stops is actually a lifeline.

Thursday, 30 January 2014

Remembering Pete Seeger

I met Pete Seeger once.  It was in Montreal at a concert when I was maybe 14.  The whole family went, and afterwards we went backstage, and there he was.  I remember virtually nothing about it, except that I was still able to wear my bar mitzvah suit (people dressed up for concerts in those days) and I was in the presence of a famous man.

Not that he spoke to me or anything, but still …

We were raised on Pete Seeger in our household.  When we weren’t listening to classical music (none of those decadent Beatles for us), it was left-wing folk singers: Paul Robeson, Peter, Paul and Mary, Pete …

And I still have a soft spot for the music even though my politics are no longer left-wing.  Music can rise above politics, and there was something about Pete Seeger in particular.  Not strident, said an obituary this week, and that’s very much a part of it.  Upbeat.

Of course, in those days the Left was upbeat, resolutely optimistic, not preaching gloom and doom and global warming.  Gloom and doom was for Spenglerian reactionaries and the Population Bombers.

But he didn’t seem locked into dogmatic optimism either.  In fact, one of his most famous songs bothered me, the dogmatic leftist, for that very reason.  “Turn! Turn! Turn!” as he liked to say, was based on the Book of Ecclesiastes, the Bible.  The Bible!  How can you be progressive and quote the Bible!

But the Party Line was to revere Pete and if Pete was doing this, it must be okay.  But the message!  It wasn’t about the triumph of the people or a lament for the oppressed.  It was all about birth and dying, being happy and sad, fighting and reconciling.  About real life, in other words, not some ideological prism.  It made me uneasy … then.  Now it seems very touching and real, except for the last line swearing it’s not too late (for peace), the one ideological moment in the song (and the only line, except for the Turn! Turn! Turn! refrain, not taken from the Bible). ...

There was something gentle about Pete, like a kindly uncle, as one of the obituaries put it.  Oh, he could call for freedom and so on, but mostly he seemed gentle and puckish, sly, and friendly, reaching out to his audience, famous for getting them to sing along.  Let’s all be just one happy family, and that’s a pleasant notion.

Not a radical at all, said one of my co-workers this week.  But he was in the Communist Party, I said.  Oh, they weren’t radical, he said.  And maybe they weren’t.  Not in North America, where Communism meant summer camps and singing Solidarity Forever.

And he could be plaintive in his Flowers song.  Where Have all the Flowers Gone?  Where are the snows of yesteryear?

But in Turn! Turn! Turn! he was beyond all of that, joining with the author of Ecclesiastes in simultaneously celebrating and mourning the human condition.  To everything there is a season.

Rest in peace, Pete.