When someone corrects a family member’s use of English, it usually (I imagine) follows the lines of age and authority: a parent correcting a child, say. But the dynamic is sometimes reversed and can be depicted thus in fiction: Michael Connelly, for example, has Harry Bosch’s daughter criticise the detective’s speech.
A more elaborate case plays out in Ali Smith’s novel How to Be Both (whose conversation without a common language I recently shared). The protagonist in one half of the novel, a teenage girl named George who is grieving for her late mother, compulsively corrects people’s usage – sometimes vocally, sometimes silently.
We notice the habit in the story’s first scene, a flashback. George is travelling in the car with her mother, and her little brother is asleep in the back. She is looking up the lyrics to ‘Let’s Twist Again’, and they annoy her in multiple ways. (Smith doesn’t use quotation marks or other punctuation to mark speech.)
The words are pretty bad. Let’s twist again like we did last summer. Let’s twist again like we did last year. Then there’s a really bad rhyme, a rhyme that isn’t, properly speaking, even a rhyme.
Do you remember when
Things were really hummin’.
Hummin’ doesn’t rhyme with summer, the line doesn’t end in a question mark, and is it meant to mean, literally, do you remember that time when things smelt really bad?
Then Let’s twist again, twisting time is here. Or, as all the sites say, twistin’ time.
At least they’ve used an apostrophe, the George from before her mother died says.
I do not give a fuck about whether some site on the internet attends to grammatical correctness, the George from after says.
As the story develops, seemingly trivial moments like this take on ever more significance. Since her mother died, George has been unable to enjoy music, so she’s seeking a way back in: through music her mother loved. She keeps replaying conversations they had, and the George ‘from before’ and ‘from after’ show shifts in her feelings about all sorts of things, including English usage.
This business about song lyrics occurs in the middle of a more serious conversation about art and what it means to be an artist. George’s mother asks her a series of questions about an artistic dilemma, and it takes her thoughts down various tracks – including grammatical pedantry, much of it naïve.
Is it happening now or in the past? George says. Is the artist a woman or a man?
Do either of those things matter? her mother says.
Does either, George says. Either being singular.
Mea maxima, her mother says.
I just don’t get why you won’t commit, ever, George says. And that doesn’t mean what you think it means. If you say it without the culpa it just means I’m the most, or I’m the greatest, or to me the greatest belongs, or my most.
It’s true, her mother says. I’m the most greatest. But the greatest what?
The discussion veers into morality but again gets derailed, this time at some length, by the politics of usage:
Talking to you, George says still below the voice [she has been thinking about sotto voce], is like talking to a wall.
Oh, very good, you, very good, her mother says.
How exactly is that good? George says.
Because this particular art, artist and conundrum are all about walls, her mother says. And that’s where I’m driving you to.
Yeah, George says. Up the wall.
Her mother laughs a real out-loud laugh, so loud that after it they both turn to see if Henry will waken, but he doesn’t. This kind of laugh from her mother is so rare right now that it is almost like normal. George is so pleased she feels herself blush with it.
And what you just said is grammatically incorrect, she says.
It is not, her mother says.
It is, George says. Grammar is a finite set of rules and you just broke one.
I don’t subscribe to that belief, her mother says.
I don’t think you can call language a belief, George says.
I subscribe to the belief, her mother says, that language is a living growing changing organism.
I don’t think that belief will get you into heaven, George says.
Her mother laughs for real again.
No, listen, an organism, her mother says […]
– which follows its own rules and alters them as it likes and the meaning of what I said is perfectly clear therefore its grammar is perfectly acceptable, her mother says. […]
Well. Grammatically inelegant then, George says.
I bet you don’t even remember what it was I said in the first place, her mother says.
Where I’m driving you to, George says.
Her mother takes both hands off the wheel in mock despair.
How did I, the most maxima unpedantic of all the maxima unpedantic women in the world, end up giving birth to such a pedant? And why the hell wasn’t I smart enough to drown it at birth?
Is that the moral conundrum? George says.
Back in the present day, George is thinking about her father’s job, which includes putting cameras in people’s chimneys to monitor their status. She catches herself avoiding singular they. Hearteningly, and for good reason, she decides on the spot to get over it:
If the person who wants to know has an extra £150, her father can provide a recorded file of the visuals so he or she can look at the inside of the chimney owned by him or her any time he or she chooses.
They. Everybody else says they. Why shouldn’t George?
Any time they choose.
But more often her pedantic side wins out – sometimes to impressive effect. In the next chat, she keeps careful track of multiple ‘offences’ in a long utterance by her school counsellor, Mrs Rock:
This, Mrs Rock said, was a very important figure in Greek life and philosophy, usually someone with no power, no social status to speak of, who’d take it upon themselves to stand up to the highest authority when the authority was unjust or wrong, and would express out loud the most uncomfortable truths, even though by doing this they would probably even be risking their life.
Upon himself or herself, George said. He or she. His or her life. […]
Mrs Rock put her pencil down on the desk with a click. She shook her head. She smiled.
Georgia, she said. As I’m sure you’re aware. You can be a little draconian at times.
I’ll take that as a compliment, Mrs Rock, George said.
Yes, Georgia, you may.
This draconian tendency of George’s is automatic and generally inconsequential:
You won’t say that when you see them [meteors] shooting so beautiful over your head, her mother say.
Fully, George says.
Then there is this story her mother tells her quietly in the dark:
One day I was waiting at a cash machine in King’s Cross and there was this woman ahead of me, about the same age as me.
As I am, George says.
George, her mother says. Whose story is this?
Sorry, George says.
Seeing and being seen, Georgie, is very rarely simple, her mother says.
Are, George says.
What? her mother says.
Are very rarely simple, George says.
Though it may not be apparent when taken out of context like this, George is so winningly written that her pedantry, rather than being exasperating, is funny and interesting in terms of her character, especially as the examples accumulate.
In the exchange below, her friend H is speaking to her (minotaur for monitor is a running joke), and this time George keeps her pedantry to herself – and then questions it to the point of distraction:
Why would anyone want to monitor her? I think your imaginings are dangerous. Someone should monitor you.
She looks up.
I’d do it, she says. I’d have done it, if it was you.
If it had been you, George says inside her head.
I’d have minotaured you for free, H says.
She looks George laughingly and seriously right in the eye.
Or maybe, if it were you, George thinks.
In the final example, George is teasing Henry and calls him an idiot. The quarrel gets splendidly sidetracked by wordplay, then grammar:
Don’t call your brother an idiot, George’s mother says.
You’re an idiot, Henry says.
Don’t call your sister an idiot, their mother says.
I didn’t call him an idiot, I said nidiot, George says. Nidiot is much worse than just idiot.
You’re far and away more of a nidiot than me, Henry says.
Than I am, George says.
Her mother laughs.
You can’t not do that, can you? she says. It’s your nature, isn’t it?
Do what, George says?
Compulsive pedantry is a common condition, often directed at public language like song lyrics and road signs. The internet is awash with self-anointed experts and bots presuming to fix other people’s usage. Some readers even deface library books to air their wrong-headed grievances.
George’s prescriptivism is of a particular type: automatic, often face-to-face, and indiscriminate – anyone is fair game. But don’t read How to Be Both for the deconstructed prescriptivism (or not just for that): Read it for its joy, humour, brilliance, and humanity. And for lines like this: