ON BEING PROUD-ASS
Grammar rules are like another kind of prescriptive law: The criminal code. Both are useful to consult to avoid errors, or to diagnose and correct errors once made. But just as nobody on Earth starts each day by reviewing the law’s attobytes of statute, precedent, and dissenting opinion, neither do we review the laws of grammar before we think, speak, or write. All we can do is study grammar, then put it out of our heads before we speak or write a syllable. Grammar is set-and-forget.
Years ago I looked out of an airplane window at northern Ungava from 40,000 feet and a sentence snapped into my mind: Ain’t nothing down there. Instantly I felt guilty about that sentence: It was ungrammatical, illiterate. No matter: It lodged in my mind like a burr. Good thing, too – it perfectly described a billion empty acres. A formal phrase would never have caught that vast vacancy.
To sum up: Yes, there’s precision in prescriptive English. But there’s also a risk of sterility. We need legalese’s perfect grammar for torts and contracts. But we cannot use it to hint, woo, or console. Humankind can live without the law. It cannot live without the sex and emotion of poetry.
Case in point. Once I stood in an airport line behind a black basketball team and heard them describe an absent teammate as ‘proud-ass.’ Aha! thinks I: -ass is used here as a suffixal-adjectival inflection that converts a good state into a bad one. It’s good to be smart, bad to be smart-ass; good to be proud, bad to be proud-ass [which obviously means stuck-up, arrogant, conceited]. The meaning leaps out, no dictionary needed: Dressed in a team jacket, die sprechtzeit – the genius of English – has judged.
There are so many examples of ungrammatical vigor that it comes as no surprise to learn that modern grammar was propounded centuries ago as an attempt to tame the drunk and disorderly critter called living English – to make it bathe, sing hymns, and settle down. All such attempts are futile. Neither by stone walls nor by bars of chromium-vanadium-molybdenum steel can living English be constrained. To try it is to be, well, proud-ass. Ain’t nothing be caging it.