Communication: Wonderful When It Happens
By Randy Gaddo
I’ve said many times, communication is a wonderful thing – when it happens; however, in my experience, the opportunities for miscommunication in our world abound.
I validated this observation recently in an incident that involved a member of my family, who shall remain nameless but who was among the collective subjects of a 1961 song by Ernie K-Doe entitled “Mother-in-Law.”
Anyway, after a small family dinner I was talking about my early upbringing on a Wisconsin farm; my wife and her family are mid-Georgia Southerners so I’m the only Yankee at the table. So I made the comment, quote, “My brother is four years older than me.”
My mother-in-law abruptly stopped me and corrected me and explained how I had improperly used the nominative case of a pronoun – or words to that effect - and that I should know better.
I stopped in mid-sentence and just starred at her for several long seconds. I hadn’t really understood a word that she’d said – it wasn’t important exactly what her correction had been or if she was right or not. I felt that it was un-necessary to correct me, period. Everyone had understood what I’d said but at that point the flow of what I was saying was lost.
I admit, a few expletives gathered in my brain and were making their way to my vocal chords to be spewed across the table, but I stopped them. Instead, after those few seconds of starring, I asked her, “Is that really important?”
Then I got a several-minute explanation that she had been sternly taught proper grammar by Mrs. Such-and-Such in her freshman and junior high school years in the small southern town where she’d grown up and it had influenced her throughout her life and anybody who didn’t use proper grammar was just ignorant.
Yes, she used that word, ignorant, implying of course that I was counted among that number. Those expletives broke down the first line of barriers I’d installed and were making their way to my vocal chords again. But again I stopped them.
The words of a former professor of mine came to mind: seek first to understand. This teacher of systems management taught that in order to truly understand where a system - whether mechanical, procedural or psychological – might be off track, it was critical to break the system into its parts and examine each part of the process in order to influence improvement.
So, in order to improve communication between us, I asked her, “Why is that so important to you now?” I then got a long and fairly emotional explanation about how she felt that proper grammar had been abandoned and that I, as a journalist, should be a defender of proper grammar.
I tried to explain that writing for media audiences is not the same as constructing a paper for a high school grammar teacher. The strict rules of grammar (which, by the way, I never really embraced) are often neglected in favor of brevity, comprehension or common usage.
If we all spoke or wrote in accordance with proper grammar rules, it would indeed be a stiff and formal world – proper perhaps, but not realistic. If all writers were to abide by the rules of grammar, reading might be cumbersome and, well, less readable.
If a grammarian were to have edited some well-known writers, their works may never have seen the light of day.
For example, Robert Frost wrote, “The woods are lovely, dark and deep. But I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep.” Grammatically, this is a mess: never start a sentence with a conjunction (but…); don’t need a comma before a conjunction (keep, and…sleep, and…). However, fortunately, the dramatic overrode the “grammatic” in this case, else the world may never have known “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening.”
Here’s one that is widely famous today but grammatically infamous; “To boldly go where no man has gone before.” This is a split infinitive with “boldly” improperly between to and go. I envision grammarians who are also Trekkies grimacing each time they hear that line. If this line’s writer had written it properly (Boldly to go…), would it have survived as the opening line in Star Trek all this time?
That is a rhetorical question, I suppose, but this example illustrates the communication point I’m trying to make. The “rule” against split infinitives, by many accounts, is a grammatical superstition, invented in the 1700’s by a grammarian who wanted to “improve” the English language along Latin lines.
However, English isn’t Latin and there are times when the two just don’t work well together. There are times when a writer has to “break the rules” in order to create drama, or emotion, or conflict, or any of the myriad emotions that can be triggered by good writing.
As I look back at the “rules” of grammar, it strikes me that the reason I could never embrace them as a kid was that they never made much sense to me and in many cases just sounded awkward. Many of the “rules” were developed by academics who catered more to other academics than to the common man.
But I digress; back to the communication point. In the course of the interchange of ideas between my mother-in-law and me, my 21-year-old son who had been quietly observing was drawn into the discussion when he was asked if he believed proper grammar was important.
He said, “Not really, as long as how I say it gets my point across.”
That is really what I was trying to say, but he did it in fewer words and with more effect.
I will never change my mother-in-law’s views on grammar; and she won’t change mine. We just have to agree to disagree and coexist, with the understanding that our two approaches to grammar are not the same and never will be.
We see examples of misinterpreted communication every day, mostly in the media by public figures who say something that gets dissected, analyzed and interpreted to death – and usually it isn’t what they meant. However, I’m sure everyone has seen examples - or has personally experienced such examples – in the work place, at home and in society at large.
I think if everyone would live by the rule that our creator gave us two eyes, two ears and only one mouth so we could watch and listen twice as much as we talk, then perhaps communication among people would improve and be the wonderful thing it was intended to be (or, more correctly, for which it was intended).
Randy Gaddo, a retired Marine who also served for 15 years in municipal parks and recreation, is now a full-time photojournalist who lives in Bay Minette, AL; he can be reached at (678) 350-8642 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.