Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Wednesday, February 18, 2004

SECOND THOUGHTS ON YESTERDAY'S SCURRILOUS ATTACK ON MATH (Further Digression from Driving Down the Mountain with Ella and Friends)

Mathematically, the difference between .9999(infinity) and 1 is infinitesimally small.  It’s off by one infinity-eth, by an amount so small that it’s unimaginabe, immeasurable, imperceptible.  So why was I all so stiff and piffly about it?

As if -- as if I don’t embrace contradictions in other realms!  Like everybody’s uncle, Walt Whitman, said in “Song of Myself,” “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”

(Or as a parodist put it, “Do I contradict myself?  I contradict myself very well!”)

Maybe it’s the rational face math presents to the world.  I know now that it's more complex than that, but that was my many-years' long first impression, and first impressions (and 2nd, 3rd, on through 10th grade impressions) -- tend to last.

THE SOCIOECONOMICS OF GRAMMAR (Another digression from Driving Down the Mountain with Ella and Friends)

The great poet & thinker David Antin (who’s still alive, and in his 70s) first got me thinking about the relationship between speech and poetry (which I wrote about on Sunday) in an essay called “Talking to Discover,” published in a collection of essays on poetics, “Symposium of the Whole,” edited by Jerome and Diane Rothenberg. 

Later, untutored, amateur study of rhetoric led me to the discovery that rhetoricians have fancy names for every sort of grammatical mistake.  One possible implication from this would be that the fancy name applies only as long as the speaker made the mistake on purpose.  Antin – and probably most rhetoricians and linguists – would disagree with this implication, as do I.

The real implication, combined with Antin’s discovery (shared by literary critic and English prof Northrop Frye in “The Educated Imagination,” and by psychoanalysts as described in Janet Malcolm’s book “The Impossible Profession”) that people don’t speak in prose, is that almost nobody’s speech conforms to standard grammar. 

This is easy enough to hear if you hang out with enough middle class people.  An accepted middle class grammatical error is the overcompensation for the “he and I” rule.  In the nominative case, the standard grammar is to list the first person singular last, and to use “I” instead of “me.” 

“Peter and I wrote a novel together in high school.” 

In the accusative or dative case, one should not use “I”; one should use “me” (according to standard grammar).  Many middle class people overcompensate and use “I” when they SHOULD use “me.” 

“The literary police accused Peter and I of plagiarizing our book.”  That’s not correct according to "standard," but it’s acceptable middle class grammar.

This doesn’t even take into account all the run-on sentences and sentence fragments that grace the speech of most of us.

What struck me hard about this was that blue collar grammar won’t pass muster in a lot of middle class job interviews, when middle class grammatical errors are usually acceptable. 

I once worked on a project with an African American woman who was the director of Seattle’s Good Will Learning Center, a program of Good Will Industries.  She oversaw a class called “Cash English.”  Not “standard English,” not “correct English,” not “middle class English” or “white English” – Cash English.  Brilliant marketing, clever and true.  (My parents taught me Cash English from young childhood, and I’ve always been grateful.) 

The singing tradition exemplified by Ella Fitzgerald comes from an era of upward mobility. Ella grew up extremely poor, and many of the classic Tin Pan Alley songwriters grew up speaking Yiddish (Berlin, Harburg, Gershwin -- many modernist American poets too: Zukovsky, Reznikoff, Stein). The era of upward mobility required good diction of its singers and what they may have called "proper" grammar in its songs. And Ella exemplifies this. (Louis Armstrong is exceptional in this respect as in so many others -- his diction was often bad, and he often ignored as many as half the words of a song he was singing. Listening to him today interpolate a short original phrase into a sentimental pop song, I thought that nobody -- nobody, nobody (nobody I can think of anyway) -- nobody combined his air of transcendent hipness and utter knowingness with his air of all-inclusive friendliness and warmth of presentation.)
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