The Elephants of Style

By | March 13, 2011
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So, I’m writing a short story and it is turning into a novel. And I begin to realize I should have not paid as much attention in English class. I find myself groaning over what is proper English, whether my verbs agree, whether my sentences are complete, or not – and wondering who are these people that make up the silly rules of grammar we’re all supposed to follow.

I’ll tell you who. There are three ninety-two year-old, white-haired (or bald) men and seven elderly women – who are not only older than the three men, but have been working with them as the editors of the so-called writer’s Bible – otherwise known as “The Elephants of Style”. It’s not really called that, but that’s what I call it. It’s about as familiar to me as the mating ritual of the Balico elephant.

Anyway, the other day, I’m browsing through the local bookstore, drooling over a cardboard replica of what is imaginatively called “The Color Nook”, when I look up and I see a young lady who is actually bravely browsing through “The Elephants of Style” ON PURPOSE! She looked as shocked as if her pantyhose had fallen down around her ankles while she was walking down a crowded street. And like everyone else who’s ever dared to open the pages of that mighty tome, she realized she don’t know jack about English.

As I’m reading about The Color Nook, I’m watching her out of the corner of my eye. She grew pale and looked as if she was about to barf. I didn’t know whether to keep reading about The Color Nook or offer her my Spencer’s Gift bag, which had nothing in it but some smutty stuff. I really wanted to go over there and console her, but in this PC era, that could be construed as sexual harassment. I really like my job and really don’t need a sexual harassment conviction on my record. One of those would make people look at me funnier than if my pantyhose were to fall down around my ankles – and I’m a man.

The poor lady was probably a hopeful, budding romance novel writer – or perhaps she was penning a dozen poems for inclusion in one of the many Anthologies of American Poetry.

I’d like to give you some savvy info about those Anthologies of American Poetry. These are books which generate a lot of money for their publishers. These gurus have invented virtual money mills. These folks seduce innocent people into thinking they are Frostian poets. In other words these ruthless capitalists charge people to put their poems in their books. I know this because when I was in college, I was a cynical sort and I was determined to prove a point to a creative writing professor I had at the time. See, I suspected he was in cahoots with one of these money-driven anthology publishers, and suspected he was getting kickbacks from them. He would always tell us we should submit our drivelly poems to these houses of literary prostitution. What made me think he was in cahoots with one of those anthology publishers? He had too many nice sweaters.

In order to prove a point, I submitted the following poem (along with $50 of my hard-earned money) to Boyan’s Anthology of American Poetry Volume LIIII – the one my professor was effusing about that particular year:

If I were a worm I’d be slimy
If I were a peach I’d be fuzzy
If I were a peanut butter cup I’d be yummy
If I were a bee I’d be buzzy
If I were a beer, you’d be happy
And I’d be gurgling around in your tummy.

The shysters at Boyan’s Anthology wrote back telling me they accepted my poem for publication – and that I was a one of the most talented young poets they’d ever seen. Really! I already knew this. Further, they wanted me to know they were including my poem in their forthcoming “Anthology of American Poetry, Volume LIIII”. After getting this letter from them, I rushed down to Chink’s and Stone’s bar and guzzled two 25-cent pitchers of beer, which I gladly shared with two succulent young ladies who were drooling over me – THE POET. Yes, I showed them the letter.

After I finished the beer and hobnobbing with the dazzled (and now inebriated young ladies, who no doubt went back to their sorority house with juicy tales of their evening with THE POET). I looked inside the opened envelope from the anthology people. There was a second letter in the envelope which I hadn’t read – and fortunately didn’t take to the bar with me.

The second letter was stapled to an order form. The illuminates – those crooks – wrote that they were also VERY pleased to offer me a chance to obtain my very own copy of that volume — which, of course, included my poem — for the special poet’s price of just $49.95 (plus shipping and handling). Since I was broke,, I missed that opportunity; I never did get to see my poem in print. (Don’t cry! I got over it.) My college professor gave me an “F” on the poem. Actually, I thought it was cute – not the “F”, the poem. I told my professor that one of his recommended anthologies had published my poem, but he didn’t change my grade. And I never saw those two poet-groupies again either.

You’re probably wondering what all this has to do with anything. And may I say, you have a good point. Bear with me and I’ll try to explain how the arcane rules of English can bog down a writer and stifle creativity. And why my short story (called “The Loons on Lemon Lake”, by-the-way) is turning into a ponderous novel.

If you’ve read this far (and I can’t imagine why you would have), I’m sure you can already tell I’m really good with English. And I know, when English is controlled by a group of old fuddy-duddies, the rules get tedious and arcane – even risible. They like it that way – they don’t want you and I to understand the litany of foolish rules of English grammar the concoct out of thin air. If we understood them as well as they, they’d be out of a job and in an extended care facility drinking Big Macs through a straw.

The aging staff of “The Elephants of Style” like to gummy-up the rules because it provides them with endless hours of amusement. They are well aware that fools like me ponder over the most picayune rules of grammar, instead of writing riveting prose like this. But if you’re 97 years-old, you need all the amusement you can find because roller coasters are out of the question. So this illustrious board of editors add more and more ridiculous rules to The Elephants of Style every year – further junking up an already nearly incomprehensible set of rules. They like to think of us common, ordinary morons trying to finesse our way through paragraph after paragraph, besieged and overwhelmed by their mundane, finicky and most often outrageously illogical rules. I imagine this provides them with lots of laughs as they plop their teeth in glasses full of fizzy denture cleaner – and watch the little particles of food fizzing off the plastic teeth.

It’s not just the crotchety old staff of “The Elephants of Style”, who disdain us common folk. Nope! There are tens of thousands of English teachers who also laugh at us too, chortling at us as we misuse I, me, she, her, he, his and so forth. Not many of us actually misuse “so forth”, I don’t think…

Anyway, I’ve become sort of a grammarian myself over the past few years. But I don’t want to laugh at you, I want to help you. Not with thready, convoluted rules, but with simple examples. Think of me as the Rosetta Stone of Grammar.

For those of you who don’t get the rules of I, me, he, she, he, his…I will clear this up for you by showing you an example: “She and I went to the movie together; her hair got greasy when it fell into my popcorn. After that incident, her and me left the movie separately. I call her but she won’t talk to me, because she don’t like me anymore. I don’t think her and me will ever go no place together again.”

See how easy that was?

Another commonly misused pair of words is that and which. I can quickly clear this up for you with by using another example:

“That witch took my shoes which meant I had to walk home that night barefoot – in the snow. Had that witch — which I now dislike since I lost four toes because of her — been considerate, she would have at least allowed me to use a couple of her plastic kitchen bags, which would have prevented the frostbite that took four of my toes. Or, she could have at least been nice enough to check the weather before tossing me out in the snow without my shoes, which the witch could have done easily enough that night. And when she discovered that the temperature was minus 20, and there was blowing and drifting snow and winds were howling over 100MPH, she could have let me stay in her garage, which though not heated, was, at least, free of snow and wind. So it really doesn’t matter whether you choose that or which, that witch made me pretty damned angry. Because of that night which I spent, at least partly, in the company of that witch, I have to limp around the rest of my life missing four toes. And that makes getting around a more of a problem than it used to be before the night with that witch. Not to mention which, it’s hard to buy shoes for a foot that is missing four toes – a foot which would have not been missing anything if it had not been for that night with the witch.

Finally, let’s explore the oft-misused verb “lie”. Yes. Lie is a typical English verb that has at least two meanings. I will let you cogitate on that while I provide some illumination for you.

The verb “lie” is one of the most ill-used verbs in the English language. I know you’re dying to learn how to use it properly, so I’m going to show you, in simple, everyday terms, everyone can understand.

Example I:

The private told the sergeant that he was sorry for lying to him. The sergeant, not uncompassionate, ruminated for a few minutes and said: “Private, lay down your arms. You lie too often; I’m sure you have some underlying mental issues which (that) need to be addressed. I haven’t got time for counseling right now, I have to lay in some supplies for the new recruits who are coming in the morning. I have no time for you right now. So, in the meantime, why don’t you go back to your barracks and lie down, watch a good soap opera and much on some Lay’s potato chips. While you’re lying there, try to think of the reasons why you’re always lying so much. At first, it was kind of cute but not so much anymore.

After you have lain down for an hour or so, come into my office and I’ll lay it on the line for you. I need to think about this for awhile, and I can only think properly about lying privates when I’m lying down.”

The private, surprised by the sergeant’s compassion concerning his lying replied, “I think I will take your advice and lie down and eat some Lay’s.” He then laid his folder on the sergeant’s desk and headed back to the barracks, wondering which lie it was the sergeant caught him in. He was so tired, he thought that lying down sounded wonderful. Little did he know that while he lay down, his world would change forever. And he had no idea that when he got up, he would wish that he would never have lain down at all. When you lie, you can’t always expect someone to tell you to lie down and sleep it off. Life isn’t always so easy as that.

Example II:

“The lamb should have never lain down with that lion. Now the landscape is cluttered with little pieces of wool. The entire landscape is literally littered with tuft’s of wool lying all over, or drifting through the air. It looks like mother nature laid down a fluffy blanket of snow. The next time that lamb needs to rest, I suggest she lie down with chickens or something else without teeth. The moral of the story? Be careful who you lie down with or you may awaken with your wool lying all over, and wishing you had never lain down in the first place. You might have to even lie about how you lost all your wool.”

OK you really want one more, don’t you? Here you go: Never end a sentence with a preposition says “The Elephants of Style”. I’m going to show you a trick that can help you with this. I learned it by accident.

I have a friend in Georgia, and he always picks on me because in Ohio, it’s common to ask someone, “where are you at?”. Sure a simple, “where are you?” would do. But in Ohio, we say, “where are you at?”. So when I talk to my friend in Georgia, sometimes I’ll hear animals bellowing in the background and it’s obvious that he is not at home. He’s somewhere else. So, I say, “where are you at?”. Nothing wrong with that. Of course, he has to mock my Ohioism – and say “Where am I AT?” His mocking always got to me until I figured out how to silence him. Now I say – “where are you at, you jerk?”

So the next time you say something like, “who are you going with?” (which should be, “with WHOM are you going” but that sounds stupid), say “who are you going with, honey?” Or, “who are you going with, dear?” See? My simple rule can help you from sounding like a uneducated, country bumpkin. Or better yet, it can prevent you from sounding like you were bored and raised in Ohio. You sure don’t want to sound like a pumpkin breeder from Ohio, do you?

And the next time you run into a foreigner, and suspect he or she might be from Ohio, ask them, “where are you from, sweetie?” Be careful! Make sure the person you use this diminutive with is of the opposite sex, or there may be some unexpected consequences.

I think that’s enough for today. By now you should have gleaned some great grammatical diamanté from me. Not only have you learned some swell gems of grammar, you’ve also learned where I’m from, baby.

2 thoughts on “The Elephants of Style

  1. Nancy Zilch

    Being an English major, I really enjoyed this one, TC. . . grammar. . . I am always correcting my grandchildren, ages 6 and 8 years. . . and the learning process goes on and on and on. . . ,dear 🙂

  2. Margaret Crozier

    Oh, yes, grammar. Isn’t it fun and don’t we all misuse it from time to time.
    However, there are a couple – well, three that I will mention here – of those misuses that irk me. (Please don’t label me one of those ‘fuddy-duddies’. I really don’t wish to be THAT picky.

    #1. quoted from your writing ” And I know, when English is controlled by a group of old fuddy-duddies, the rules get tedious and arcane – even risible. They like it that way – they don’t want you and I to understand…”

    If speaking only in the singular, would you have said, “They don’t want I to understand”?

    That, I believe, is the test for where to use ‘you and I’ and ‘you and me’. Try it in the singular and what is correct there is how it should be.

    The following two were not noticed in your article but are always very noticeable to me when misused.

    #2. Your and you’re. The latter contraction for ‘you are’ is rarely seen even in official kind of writings so maybe someone has decreed it is no longer valid. ‘-)

    #3. There and their. There you go to pick up their clothes from the floor again!

    Okay, maybe I am one of those ‘elephants’ in the making!


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