Allegory of Grammar Monday, Mar 15 2010 

Though I can appreciate the beauty of a well crafted painting, I usually miss the deeper meaning behind most works of art.  Drifting through the galleries at the Walters Museum of Art in Baltimore I finally found a painting that speaks a language I can understand.

Allegory of Grammar, painted in 1650 by Laurent de La Hyre, depicts the art of grammar as a woman watering flowers that represent ideas.  The artist’s objective is to show how grammar and clear writing allow ideas to bloom and prosper.  I may be no art connoisseur but I certainly understand the merit of the artist’s work.  The most intelligent ideas are worthless without a clear, coherent organization that allows them to be understood.

This is why celebrities hire ghost writers to help write their autobiographies.  The heart of the book comes from the person who lived the anecdotes, but these anecdotes are not marketable if they are not expressed in a clear, interesting, clever way that captivates an audience.

The art of writing gives ideas their sophistication.  For example, adolescence is a memorable time in many people’s lives and while some will say there are unique qualities to being an adolescent, few can verbalize their experience in a way that others will understand, even if these feelings are universal.  In Catcher in the Rye, the late J.D. Salinger developed the characteristics of adolescence through his words, sentence structure, and organization so that the adolescent experience could be felt by his readers in a way that though many felt, few could express themselves.


Grammatically Sound Footwear Wednesday, Feb 17 2010 

This past weekend I took an educational trip to the Baltimore National Aquarium (photo below).  While at the aquarium I attended a dolphin show where I learned about the advanced communication among dolphins using clicks, squeaks, and squeels.  The dolphins communicate with each other using these sounds and the trainers mimic the sounds to prompt the dolphins to do tricks for the audience.

It’s a shame humans aren’t so clear in their communication.  About an hour after I learned about dolphins’ sophisticated communication, I encountered a sign in the human world that left me utterly baffled.  Placed in front of an escalator, the sign read:

“Caution: Avoid injury soft rubber shoes

keep feet between the yellow lines”  etc.

I understand what “keep feet between the yellow lines” means, but what is “avoid injury soft rubber shoes”?  Something’s missing.  An infinitive and a verb maybe?  “To avoid injury, wear soft rubber shoes”.  That’ll work. Though if certain footwear is recommended for riding the escalator, shouldn’t visitors know this before entering the aquarium instead of in the middle of an exhibit on the second floor?  Even with my adjustments to the statement to make it more stable, I still don’t think it properly communicates whatever its point is.  The other commands on the sign are easy to follow.  I know how to keep my feet between yellow lines.  I can hold onto the hand rails.  But making sure I’m wearing the proper shoes midway through my visit?  A little harder to fix.

So, Baltimore National Aquarium, I have two charges for you:

1. Failing to proofread your signs.  You are an instutituion that instructs men, women, and children alike about the fascinating world of water.  A noble cause.  But as an educational instutition, please don’t let other important educational disciplines escape you.

2. Failing to effectively communicate.  Even if you proofread your sign to make it structurally sound, what are you trying to tell visitors with this safety tip?  How can they help what shoes they wore that day and how does that fit with the other proactive goals of the sign, such as not leaving children unattended or not bringing strollers onto the escalator.  Take a cue from your dolphin friends and communicate a little more effectively.

That being said, I think the Baltimore aquarium is a wonderful place and I greatly enjoy visiting it.  But how can a grammar-nut relax when even educational instututions are dropping the ball with clear, effective communication.  Come on, Baltimore aquarium!. If you can correctly spell the Latin name for the archerfish (Toxotes chatareus, in case anyone was wondering), I have faith that you can create caution signs that will knock my socks off!

The Entertaining Side of Grammar Tuesday, Feb 2 2010 

Try as a may, I can’t escape my obsession with grammar, punctuation, word usage, spelling… the list goes on.  I even wrote my personal statement for law schools about diagramming sentences.  At least now I can take my unusual obsession and make it productive for class.  I thought linguistics would be a really weird topic for a blog until I found LanguageLog, a blog run by University of Pennsylvania phonetician Mark Liberman.   This blog has witty observations about mistakes in grammar, punctuation, word use— everything I’m obsessed with.  Murphy’s Law at its finest, every link to the site is magically broken and Google can no longer find the page.  I’ll try again later.

I think my topic will work because grammar-related mistakes often make for funny results.   Eats, Shoots, and Leaves, a guidebook to punctuation, centers on the funny things that happen when people mispunctuate.  The title comes from a mistake made by someone describing the eating habits of pandas.  Instead of the panda peacefully eating his bamboo shoots and leaves, the extra commas suggest a scene out of a gangster movie with the panda shooting up a restaurant before leaving.

I may use “funny” too liberally, but these are the examples that I think are funny.  I’ll try my best to keep my posts on this more humorous slant instead of ranting about poor spelling, grammar, and the like.