American News


A GRAMMAR NAZI is for the most part someone older than you who says, “Look, sunshine, if you can’t be bothered paying attention to the small details in your sentences, why should anyone take seriously the issues you discuss in those same sentences?” After half a century of wrestling with the complexities of the English language, I fail to see how caring enough to want to get the grammar right can or should make someone an object of derision.

We lacked this nasty little term back in the day. Instead, we had teachers, lecturers, editors & sub-editors who were passionate about the language & tried to make sure we were too. None was scarier than the legendary H. G. Kippax AO, drama critic & Associate Editor of the SMH for many years.

H.G. was a grim, grey old man when I encountered him in 1973. He seemed at least 100, though Wikipedia tells me he was just over 50. He never smiled – not that anyone ever did in that gloomy fourth-floor corner of the old Fairfax building. Dark coats & cardigans predominated , the paintwork was grey-green & the woodwork thick with layers of ancient varnish. Many men looked as if they were walking out of their oncologist’s office having just heard the worst.

Every night around seven I’d edge into his office with a damp galley proof of the next day’s Letters page. Since this was the one page that lacked hard news, it would be fair to assume it would be the first finished. It was often the last. H.G. would labour for hours over his corrections, until the revised sheet looked like a kindergarten kid’s first efforts with a crayon. Sometimes every paragraph had an addition or excission. I counted 73 one night, though this was probably not the record.

H. G. Kippax had a particular fixation on the humble comma. His eye for a misplaced comma was terrifying to watch. At times he bordered on the obsessive. Nobody except H. G., it seemed, had any idea where the intrusive little brutes should go. He’d rewrite the editorial as well as correspondents’ letters. I raised an eyebrow once, unwisely. “Surely that’s a bit dodgy legally?” He glared across his enormous desk. “Dear boy, do you think for one moment I’m about to let other people dictate the Herald’s standards?”

Years later, as a teacher, I realised how hard it is to imbue a sense of how & where the various punctuational devices of English should be deployed. The language contains far too many rules & just as many exceptions. Unless you’ve been given a basic grounding early in your schooling, when rote learning is easiest, the guidelines can be overwhelming & too confusing for most. The easiest way, I found, was to let undergraduates use their common sense. “When you’re writing a long sentence,” I’d say, “read it out aloud. That point where you naturally pause is probably where a comma belongs, because it means the sentence is changing direction.”

(Semi-colons were a whole different kettle of worms. A prof. of mine at the U. of Windsor, when I was starting out as a teacher, responded to a query about plagiarism by chuckling, ‘Any time you encounter a first-year student who’s used a semi-colon correctly, you’re probably looking at someone who’s copied someone else’s work.’)

Since schools stopped teaching the basics, it’s become harder & harder to get students to understand that ‘Oh well, what does it matter – you know what I mean anyway, OK?’ is not much of an excuse. H.G.Kippax’s obsession with commas wasn’t all that bad, as obsessions go. If people don’t stand up for precision in language, soon enough none of us will be able to say exactly what it is we mean.

Cheers, folks. Hope this little diatribe hasn’t sent anyone into a coma. Or comma. ☺

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