Now Put Your Hands Up!

So lately there has been some discussion on the internet about Beyoncé, and whether or not "Single Ladies" is a feminist anthem or a pseudo-feminist anthem or just, you know, a really catchy number with some top-notch choreography and an alluring bionic hand.

A lot of this discussion -- both in the recent AV Club article and in The Sexist -- centers around the word "it" that you are instructed you ought to have put a ring on. From Amanda Hess:

Beyonce uses the dual “its” to objectify herself on two levels: first, as a sex object; second, as a wife. Beyonce asks her man to mark his territory by putting a “ring on it.”

According to the AV Club:

Beyoncé is just a passive “it” that can be claimed with a ring, and that even if the relationship is already bad, that ring has the talismanic power to guarantee a happy ending. Not to mention the idea that a ring will give the unnamed man in the story sole, permanent possession of “it,” since he’s basically just planting his flag in his claimed territory.

That's a lot of interpretive weight to put on a single flimsy pronoun. If we're going to really lay the hammer down grammar-wise -- oh, do let's! -- there are plenty of other things that support the idea that this song has a feminist slant. Beyoncé spends a lot of time telling her ex what he can and cannot do now that they're split: "Now you wanna trip . . . Don't pay him any attention . . . You can't be mad at me." Note that the ex is not allowed to actually trip -- he no longer has the right. He wants to trip; Beyoncé won't let him.

It does get a little weird in the bridge, with this line: "Say I'm the one you own." But there again is the imperative verb, and it is followed by a threat: "If you don't, you'll be alone." The ex's claim to own Beyoncé somehow does nothing to lessen her autonomy in her own mind. There's a little hint of BDSM play here, the verbal equivalent of being handcuffed to a headboard: Beyoncé wants to be a little owned. So play the game her way or she'll ditch your ass.

As for the new fling, he is an accessory like her lip gloss and designer jeans. Twice Beyoncé tells her ex, "Don't pay him any attention." She refuses to let this become a dude-versus-dude match, a competition between the ex and the new guy where Beyoncé is a property that can be earned. She always brings it back to the ex's failings in his relationship with her, before this new guy was ever around: "Cause you had your turn / And now you're gonna learn / What it really feels like to miss me."

One of my favorite moments in the video is when Beyoncé literally brushes off the new guy as unimportant:

The video really does make this all about Beyoncé. She is the entire world -- there is no one else here, no ex, no new guy, no set or props even. There is no dude here to enjoy her sexy dance -- the camera doesn't even care about the backup dancers (who are Beyoncé clones). And yeah, the video is sexy -- because hot damn, Beyoncé can move. Her body is powerful, strong, in constant motion. She displays her control of her body as much as she displays her body itself.

The editing style -- editing being the visual equivalent of grammar -- is part of what makes Beyoncé seem so powerful here. The takes are really long for the choppy ADD world of music videos, and there are plenty of tiny barely visible jump cuts that exist to make the takes seem even longer than they are. Mostly the stays moving, bobbing slightly forward and back and turning occasionally so that the viewer is constantly forced to reorient on the figure of Beyoncé, always near the center of the frame. When the camera does zoom in for close-ups, they focus exclusively on her face.

For contrast, let's look at two other megahits whose videos are polar opposites of "Single Ladies" (assuming things can have more than one polar opposite BEAR WITH ME HERE). The first: Britney Spears' 10-year-old (really? wow) "Oops! . . . I Did It Again" video.

Here are three stills:

Science Fiction Double Feature

From a slow-motion shot -- and this is the entire frame.

Britney's face is reflected in the screen of his helmet! Aaaa!

This is so male-gazey that it creeps me out. Shut your face, astronaut man!

Viewed after "Single Ladies," it's like watching a train wreck -- quick cuts, shots of Britney lolling on a bed making orgasm-legs, slow-motion shots of just her body in red vinyl, extreme close-ups of various parts of Britney's body, the smiling astronaut and his NASA buddies for whom she's putting on a show. Britney doesn't so much dance as strike a series of poses. And there's at least three of her: dancing Britney (full shots), singing Britney (shot from the boobs up), and lounging Britney (flat on her back and shot from above). You never know where Britney "really" is and you don't know what Britney really wants -- which of course is the upshot of the song, after all.

An even more extreme example is provided by the opening thirty seconds of Kanye West's "Gold Digger": The lingerie-clad woman is reduced to a series of images of her parts: face, boobs, hair, ass, all overlapped at seizure-courting speed. (And then the parade of pin-ups begins.) As for Kanye, he doesn't even turn toward the camera until about halfway through the video. Makes me wanna do this the whole time:

You show him, bubblegum-tongue lady.

NGD Preparatory Academy, Vol. 8

It would be remiss of me to approach so near National Grammar Day without bringing up punctuation. Punctuation sometimes seems like the appendix of the body of grammar, because oftentimes you can eliminate it entirely and still make something worth reading (I'm looking at you, James Joyce). But in reality it's probably something more like the spleen or gallbladder: you can get by okay without it, but things tend to run more smoothly with it in place. I think what I like so much about this sentence from the Practical is its sheer hypocrisy: look how many parentheses are there!

The other fun thing about punctuation is that it has drastically, visibly changed over the language's evolution. For instance, Jane Austen's most famous sentence: It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. Note that comma after acknowledged -- nowadays we would leave that sucker out in the cold to die. But Jane Austen thought there should be a pause there, and so in the comma went, to signal a breath in the middle of what is otherwise a bit of a mini-marathon: It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

Butler is having none of this:Jane of course was writing at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and Butler at the end of it. This century saw sweeping changes in not only the literacy rates but in the way reading was approached. Austen's time was still very rooted in oral culture. Letters were important, but were often read aloud to the family as a whole, and conversation was considered an art that required training and rules and delicacy. By the end of the century, however, writing (in the form of newspapers, magazines, and so on) had become the unquestionably central cultural medium. Butler, in his grouchy Victorianism, considers the rules of grammar and syntax a greater good than the actual behavior of words in a human mouth.

And, to fully illustrate the gap between language written and language spoken, here is Victor Borge's Phonetic Punctuation:

NGD Preparatory Academy, Vol. 7

Alas! I have little time today. So I'll post on something brief: interjections! Anything can be an interjection if you punctuate it correctly. Airplane! See how that works?

And how lovely to discover that holla was a word in the Victorian lexicon! Though it had a completely different meaning, which puts it in company with other migratory words like gay and nice. Oh, language, with its twists and turns.

NGD Preparatory Academy, Vol. 6

The three words I'm considering are as follows (and I quote): drink, drank, drunk. Early in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Ford Prefect is warning Arthur Dent that hyperspace jumps are unpleasantly like being drunk. Arthur asks what is so unpleasant about being drunk -- Ford replies: "You ask a glass of water."

The joke hinges on the confusing nature of certain irregular English participles. A participle is the form of the verb that can be used as part of a compound verb, or as an adjective. The participle of the verb be is been, as in I have been confused. Most often the participle in English is identical to the past tense: I have walked to the store. But in certain cases, where the word has a long history and frequent usage -- verbs like be, do, get, eat, think, all the basic verbs human beings use all the time because human beings are almost always being, doing, getting, eating, or thinking something -- you get irregular participles.

And when you get irregular participles, you get confusion. I swim, but have I swam or have I swum?

Current grammatical common sense declares that drank is the past tense and drunk is the participle. Last night I drank some wine/Last night some wine was drunk by me. But drunk can also be used as an adjective as well as the past tense of the verb -- in fact, this problem has been confusing native and non-native English speakers for centuries now.

The Practical deals with this problem in an incredibly snobbish manner:

The Practical is an arch-suck-up, and only the writings of respected (white, male, usually dead) authors (who may be attempting to sound archaic on purpose) count. There is quite a list, as though Noble Butler wants to overwhelm you by sheer quantity of evidence:

Incidentally, my very favorite participle in English is quite rare and getting rarer. It is dolven, the past participle of delve. As in: This mine shaft was dolven in 1902.

NGD Preparatory Academy, Vol. 5

For the first time in this experiment, I find myself relieved to agree with the Practical, and on no less a subject than the passive voice: The passive voice is often talked about, but rarely defended. This is a travesty. I am uncommonly fond of the passive voice, because it is important and useful. The difference between the example sentences above is a nuance, but one of the best things about language is its ability to convey very fine shades of distinction. Telling beginning writers/students to avoid the passive voice as though it is the writerly equivalent of a cravat or corset is leaving out a very useful technique. It is one of the many things that makes me grumpy when I read George Orwell.

Orwell's objection to the passive voice is that it allows the result to stand out more than the agent. So that instead of saying, "I screwed up," a politician might say, "Mistakes were made." And there is some truth to that. But there is also a case to be made for keeping the passive voice, even in political speech. For instance: the celebrated phrase: "all men are created equal." There's your passive voice right there. The Declaration of Independence is a far from passive document, and this phrase more than any other has become an axe to wield against anything resembling inequality (as opponents of gay marriage are in the process of finding out). And though it goes on to mention that men are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, it is not the Creator or the question of his existence that is important in this passage. It is people. For this reason, it is stronger and clearer to say that men are created or are endowed, since through the passive voice it becomes an existential condition. Man is a creature with rights.

For contrast, imagine this sentiment in the active voice: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that God created all men equal, that the Creator endowed them with certain unalienable Rights. Man -- political, democratic, revolutionary man -- has all but disappeared from the text. He goes from the verb's subject to its object. And despite the presence of the word unalienable, it stands to reason that if God endows you with something, he could just as well un-endow you if he ever felt like it.

As is, strangely, the passive voice becomes the stronger voice, the voice that lets man take an active role in the creation of a new system of government.

NGD Preparatory Academy, Vol. 4.

Time to talk participles! From the Practical: (As a side note, how often do you think this male-active/female-passive paired structure crops up in this text? Frequently! It can be a little infuriating.)

Finally -- finally! -- we get explicit confirmation that Noble Butler looks upon his grammar as an attempt to scientifically classify the words of the English language.

Note how he cites Bacon, even though Origin of Species had already done its bombshell work on scientific thinking at the time of Butler's publication. Butler is non-Darwinian in his approach to taxonomy. For instance, this sentence: "To allow words to dodge from one class to an other, is not only unphilosophical, but ridiculously absurd." Butler is trying to set down the rules for the proper behavior of English -- which, as we have seen, requires a thorough philosophy of the categorical differences between men and women, animals and plants, people and animals. This refusal of allowing words to migrate form -- as though the rules of language were all thought up at once in systematic fashion -- is the product of an insecure and tyrannical mind. Butler wants to control English as a language because then he can control the beings the words represent. Reality is to be subject to philosophy, and to the common sense of the educated white Victorian male. The idea that nouns could become verbs is as anathema as the idea that primates can become people.

NGD Preparatory Academy, Vol. 3

One of the most surreal aspects of the Practical is its long passages of sample sentences. After a time, they begi to read like the finest surrealist literature. Take this paragraph, from the section on verbs: Our pastoral scene in the beginning (horse, stable, corn) gives way to an apparent family drama in the vein of William Faulkner (Robert's glance, smoke, knives, parched earth). There is a sudden and inexplicable threat from nature (a tiger!) which is just as inexplicably dispatched (the serpent crushes the tiger!). We are left with matters unresolved (the bird on the fence). The next paragraph:

The destructive violence of pagan Rome (Brutus, Mummius) gives way to the wonder of creation and the iron hand of George Washington. Birds and water in the next sentences seem to indicate the utopian ideals of the young American country on the morning of its birth, which is supported by the upright moral tone of the good man avoiding vice. The boy's stumble, the woman's sins, and the mud, however, indicate that this perfect project has become less than idyllic, even as the final sentence implies that those utopian ideals are still the goal (up the hill).

The strangest of all:

Again, the pastoral (mother, oxen) gives way to something darker (one man's debt and another's wealth). The turning wheel of the boy indicates the wheel of fate, a change in each character's position. Now it is the other man who is rich (possesses a large estate). The boy's fire is an omen of danger, of this John who has sinister plans that our narrator is prescient enough to uncover. Despite this knowledge, our narrator fails in his confrontation with John, and the last sentence on the price of the book -- the book you are holding in your hands as you read this, perhaps? -- indicates just how far he has fallen in the course of the narrative's unfolding.

Supposedly, of course, there is no connection between these sentences. They are grammatical exercises, meant to help the reader become comfortable with picking out the verb and its subject. But the fact that they are placed in paragraphs confuses the matter a little bit. If they were listed out, it would not feel so much like a story. But in paragraphs, you start to assume there must be an inherent connection between the scenes that unfold. Otherwise, how would you know where to put the paragraph breaks? Why not have just one long text block?

Somehow, this section on verbs gets near the heart of storytelling without realizing it. The Practical likes to think of itself as being clear and concise and rigid. Everything can be put into a box, classified and categorized and labeled to within an inch of its life. But then in the verb section, the reader is present with the following exercise:

Suddenly it is time for Victorian Mad Libs.

Verbs really are the heart of story. You can leave out almost any other part of speech -- adjectives and adverbs in particular, according to every piece of writing advice everywhere -- but you have to have the verbs, even if they're abstract and otherworldly things like think or worry or imagine. Even Victorian Mad Libs, with its collection of the world's most mundane nouns, can't protect itself from the potential of becoming either a stomach-emptying gore-fest (The dog exsanguinated on the grass) or a Proustian philosophical narrative (Time reverses swiftly) or anything else you like.

NGD Preparatory Academy, Vol. 2

In my last post I talked about grammatical gender, which is pretty straightforward even for us gender-impoverished Anglophones. Today, we enter the slightly more terrifying world of case. From the Practical:Put simply, case is the difference between the words I and me. I is in the nominative, which simply means it is the subject of a verb: I believe I can fly. Me is the objective case, which means it is the object of a verb: Fly me to the moon. To move from I --> me is to decline a noun, and declension is the complete list of forms a noun in a particular language can take.

We Anglophones are somewhat lucky that in modern English very few words are actually declined. At this point, you will be wondering why on earth I think this tiny and forgotten quirk of the language is interesting. Cases are boring, you are thinking. You are so completely wrong. Cases are the opposite of boring. They are terrifying.

What cases do* is encode the grammatical function of the word into the way it is spelled. Ancient Greek has four of them and uses them constantly. Latin, not to be outdone, has five. So the declension for the Latin word murus, which means wall, looks like this:

murus, muri, muro, murum, muro.

And in the plural:

muri, murorum, muris, muros, muris.

All these mean wall, but which one you use will depend on precisely what you are trying to say about this wall. But wait! you say. Some of those look the same! How do I know if the muri I see is a genitive singular or a nominative plural? The answer: you really don't. Context is usually helpful, but not always.

What this means: Latin will kick your ass if you look at it funny. It means that ambiguity is built right in, so each conversation or text is laced with grammatical minefields. And, my favorite part, it means that a lot of times you can take a sentence, shuffle the words around, and still make sense.

In fact, you can make a sentence that means two things at once, a sentence which contradicts itself in a clever way that you can never quite collapse into a singular idea. For instance, this first line from a poem of Catullus: Ille mi par esse deo videtur. Catullus is citing in Latin one of the most famous of Sappho's poems in Greek, and so readers in the know translate the line thus: He seems like a god to me.

But if you look at the words in strict order, you get this: He to me equal being to god seems. Note how to me and equal are close together, and how close to god is to seems. Because to me and to god are in the same case, there is no grammatical reason why this line cannot be translated as: He seems to god to be equal to me. Or even: He seems to be equal to me -- and I am a god. And if you try to resolve it by saying that me is not in the dative case (like god) but is an ablative (which would be identically spelled), then you get something else altogether: either He to my disadvantage seems equal to the gods, or He to god's disadvantage seems equal to me.

The word order in Sappho's poem is much clearer: It seems to me that he is equal to the gods. The plural gods prevents the line in Greek from the ambiguity of its Latin equivalent. Both Sappho's and Catullus' poems are about love triangles, about being so overwhelmed by the beloved that you can't even talk about her, but have to talk about the man sitting next to her at a party. Sappho's poem is a despairing sigh, but Catullus' tricksy word order embodies the struggle against the romantic rival within the grammatical structure of the line. Neither the love triangle nor the word order can be simplified or resolved.

A British study not too long ago found that Shakespeare's grammar tended to prod the human brain into a slightly more excited state, partly because it became a puzzle the brain constantly had to solve in a satisfying way. Latin poetry is like Shakespeare on steroids.

And this is just using two (or maybe three) of a modest five cases. Some languages have many more. Finnish, for instance, has fifteen of the things. For every Finnish word there are fifteen different ways to spell it, and another fifteen ways to spell the plural form. If you are inside the car, the auto, you are autossa. If you are getting out of the car, you are autosta. If you are sitting on top of the car, you are autolla, or falling off the top of the car, autolta. (The geographic specificity of many Finnish cases might explain why the Finns are so damn good at architecture. They're always thinking in terms of where something is.) The declension of the Finnish word kulta, which means either gold (the metal) or darling (the person), looks like this:

You'll notice the way the -lt- changes to -ll- sometimes for no apparent reason. This is something Finnish does just to mess with foreigners.

Be grateful, Anglophones, that all we have to think about most days is what the damn words mean.

* At least, this is what cases do in the Western languages that I have had the opportunity to study in depth. If anyone with a good working knowledge of Chinese, Japanese, Javanese, Thai, or anything else wants to chime in and correct me, I will be delighted.

National Grammar Day Preparatory Academy, Vol. 1

Did you know we have a National Grammar Day? It is true. It seems we have all manner of National Days lately, though I haven't yet tracked down which government office is ultimately responsible for the proliferation of Days. When I do, I fully intend to send them a card. The point is this: National Grammar Day is on March 4, and March 4 is fast approaching. Steps must be taken. Can we really expect to wallow happily in the mud of English usage for a mere twenty-four hours with no preparation? Of course not! Rash to even consider it!

With that in mind, every other day from now until National Grammar Day, I will be sharing my commentary upon tidbits from Noble Butler's A Practical and Critical Grammar of the English Language (1874). This book is dense, and coolly angry. Many footnotes take up more than half a page. It is obsessively taxonomical, and approaches English as though it were a rare and precious species of butterfly that must be thoroughly anaesthetized before being put on display in a quiet room somewhere out of direct sunlight with a shiny pin through its once-beating heart.

What fun!

Let us start with gender. Many of you are under the impression that we have no grammatical gender in English. According to the Practical, you are wrong:

I apparently have no gender, nor does my parent. Or, it seems, that sheep -- and maybe I'm the only one who finds the sequence parent-cousin-sheep-I-who a little bit hilarious. I am left wondering what the next word might be.

The Practical goes on to state that some classes of nouns "have no common gender, but only those which denote males and females." The example? Horse. Horse, it seems, is masculine, in contrast with mare. Apparently Noble Butler has never heard of either a stallion or a gelding. The Practical's advice for such nouns is either use both (brothers and sisters), circumlocute (children of the same parents), or:

Men get horses, and women get geese. Does that strike anyone else as a little unfair?

Lest you think I am reading unnecessary bias into this starchy Victorian tome, the following passage helpfully clarifies:

The upshot: speaking proper English requires having a full set of gender stereotypes in place before you even open your mouth.