A Letter to That Man.

Damon Young, a columnist at the Washington Post, received a passive-aggressive piece of peevery of a sort that is all too common in general, but the particular focus of this one inspired him to write A letter to that man who emailed me to correct my grammar (archived), a coruscating evisceration that I urge you to read in full; I’ll quote part of it here (at the link, the offending e-mail is shown in an image at the top). He starts with the single-paragraph sentence “I’m better at this than you are at everything you do” and proceeds to explain:

In your email, you declared that my use of the word “ain’t” was a “really poor choice,” corrected my use of “them,” and demanded that I don’t try to sound like I’m “still in the street.”

If you were better at this than I am, you would know, as I do, that the rules of grammar are mostly suggestions. Guardrails to help us corral and curate the mess in our heads into something cohesive. And, to quote Jason Reynolds, what happens within that space is a form of alchemy. […]

You would also know — if you were better at this than I am — that sentences are music. And that both sentences and music are math. Equations. Beats separated by pauses. Microbursts of energy clustered and cut and culled to find balance. You would know that sometimes “ain’t” just fits in a way that “isn’t” or “is not” does not. Same with “them” instead of “those.” You would know that even the choice of “does not” at the end of the above sentence instead of “doesn’t” was intentional, because of the repetitious rhythm of “does not” existing immediately after “is not.” You would know that short phrases lead to shorter sentences, which punch in a way that longer ones sometimes can’t. Like this just did. You would know that “ain’t” ain’t a signifier of being “still in the street.” You would know that “still in the street” ain’t do what you think it did. You would know that writing a thing like that just proves you’re a living anachronism. But not in a romantic way, like a streetcar or a Ferris wheel. But like cigarette smoke indoors.

He ends “This was fun to write. But I feel bad for you now. Because I wish you had better sentences.” He must have put in a lot of work filing the rough edges off what I’ll bet started off with bursts of open rage; I don’t think I could have been nearly as restrained. Give that guy a raise!

Comments

  1. David Eddyshaw says

    “You would know that writing a thing like that just proves you’re a living anachronism. But not in a romantic way, like a streetcar or a Ferris wheel. But like cigarette smoke indoors.”

    Oof.

  2. Oof indeed. A splendid image.

  3. It bears to mention that Damon Young is black, which makes the note ever more obnoxious; I think that is the anachronism he talks about (“still in the streets”??? WTF???)

  4. Young’s autobiographical book What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker is very good (especially if you’re a Pittsburgher).

  5. PlasticPaddy says

    Wow. Someone touched a nerve. I would say to Damon: you have arrived. No need to fight ancient battles with teachers who sneered at your accent or your choice of words or with dumbass whites who thought you were a token. You know what you are and can afford to answer this kind of mail (if you choose to answer it at all) courteously, along the lines of ‘Thanks, I am always looking for ways to improve my writing’ . Who knows, the troll might buy your next book, or even give you feedback you can use, because although she may not be able to do anything well, she seems to have put effort in to reading and commenting on your work.

  6. PlasticPaddy, I’m guessing you’re not black, and I’m further guessing you haven’t put any effort into understanding what black people go through every day of their lives. I would gently suggest that you do so before wading in with a suggestion that, frankly, sounds like telling women they shouldn’t be bothered by men whistling at them or appraising their figure on the street but should take it as a compliment.

  7. I am curious about other people’s reactions to the past tense in “Like this just did,” which I found jarring. Self-referential sentences are normally in the present tense, right? Or am I misunderstanding it completely?

  8. John Cowan says

    I think the justification is that you don’t receive the punch until you’ve heard/read the whole sentence, short as it is, so it’s an immediate-past.

  9. Yes, what JC said.

  10. Wouldn’t the logic have to be the other way around? You would need to have received the punch before the end of the sentence for the past tense to make sense.

  11. David Marjanović says

    No need to fight ancient battles

    Of course there’s a need.

    ‘Thanks, I am always looking for ways to improve my writing’

    What, is that supposed to be the complete answer to something that would make his writing worse?

  12. PlasticPaddy says

    @hat, dm
    I did not want to say any more, because as hat says, this involves a person’s sensitvity and it is pointless and will moreover be seen as patronising to point out that the sensitive person might do better to react in a different way than “biting off the head” of an interlocutor who might or might not be trying to provoke such a reaction. Dm, my proposal is based on experience dealing with difficult people. With such people there is no complete answer (apart from ostracism, and I said “if you choose to answer at all”).

  13. Reminds me of a situation in the 28th country of the EU.

    Aside from trying to ban, change and subvert their language in the past, there are lots of people telling the natives of that country that they invent words, pronounce words incorrectly, that they don’t know what is the name of their language, that they really speak the same language as in the surrounding countries, and generally how their language should be treated etc. etc. etc.

  14. re: Paddy’s suggestion, cf. Carl Sandburg’s and H. L. Mencken’s Form Letters of Note.

  15. David Eddyshaw says

    @PP:

    I think the complainant’s letter is pretty damn patronising.* If the writer didn’t realise that (and they may well not have done), well, they damn well should have realised it. I don’t blame Young a bit.

    * It’s a “stay in your lane” letter. Bugger that.

    @mollymooly:

    Very useful …

    I (naturally) particularly liked Mark Twain’s

    It would never be fair to ask a doctor for one of his corpses to remember him by.

  16. James Kabala says

    Whether it is right or wrong in principle, I am kind of surprised that the Post printed “ain’t” or “them boys” in the first place. I guess maybe the original piece was supposed to be somewhat informal in tone to begin with?

  17. Doonesbury, from almost 50 years ago, is relevant.

  18. Indeed it is.

    It astonishes me that after all this time people feel the same impulse.

  19. It’s precisely because the letter is obnoxiously patronizing that I wouldn’t condescend to explain myself in response to it. “Thanks, I am always looking for ways to improve my writing” would be a neat punch to the teeth because what it really says is, “I’m a columnist for a leading newspaper and I’m the one setting the standard for you basement dwellers.” The “living anachronism” finale would also work nicely. But explaining to that man what good prose has in common with poetry and music is casting pearls before swine. That part belongs in a separate column for the benefit of the general public.

  20. David Marjanović says

    OK, that might work if everyone is steeped deeply enough in British culture.

  21. “You would know that writing a thing like that just proves you’re a living anachronism. But not in a romantic way, like a streetcar or a Ferris wheel. But like cigarette smoke indoors.”

    I am probably one of the few people who miss cigarette smoke indoors, and I don’t even smoke. Vienna lost a lot of its character when the smoking ban finally went into effect a few years ago (and streetcars and a giant Ferris wheel are still very much a part of everyday life).

  22. “Thanks, I am always looking for ways to improve my writing” would be a neat punch to the teeth

    No it wouldn’t; the recipient would smile in satisfaction and feel his victory. People like that need a good sharp poke in the ribs, not an ironic pat on the head.

  23. I can’t help but feel the “but why not be polite?” folks have had no experience with bullies.

  24. Ideally, I wouldn’t include a free lecture on creative writing in any putdown, whether polite or brutal. That’s too generous to the bully. On the other hand, educating well-meaning but blinkered readers could be more important.

  25. PlasticPaddy says

    @hat
    In my case, you could be correct–I am perhaps more likely to bully than be bullied😊. You may be picturing yourself as the brave soul who punches the bully in the face, after which you expect someone (perhaps an admiring girlfriend) to throw their arms around you and exclaim “My hero!”. Even assuming the bully does not get up and punch you back in the face, perhaps he will wait for you one day after school, together with other members of his inbred and hirsute family, holding boards with protruding nails, which they proceed to employ with a certain energy and lack of caution. My preferred approach would be to encourage the bully to choose another victim, without any overt display of annoyance or force, and without visibly taking or giving offence.

  26. David Eddyshaw says

    after which you expect someone (perhaps an admiring girlfriend) to throw their arms around you and exclaim “My hero!”

    This happens to me a lot …

    to encourage the bully to choose another victim

    There seems to be a Tragedy of the Commons aspect to this …

    Whether standing up to bullies should be done cannot be simply determined by whether it leads directly to painful consequences. Not standing up to bullying may lead to worse consequences in the long run. And there are worse things than bruises. In the long run.

  27. What DE said. Also:

    You may be picturing yourself as the brave soul who punches the bully in the face, after which you expect someone (perhaps an admiring girlfriend) to throw their arms around you and exclaim “My hero!”.

    This is not a helpful way to interact with people.

  28. Not standing up to bullying may lead to worse consequences in the long run.

    Eg, the year 2014, Ukraine, Crimea, Russia.

  29. Yes, a prominent current example. And there are still people saying we should be polite with Russia.

  30. PlasticPaddy says

    @hat
    The passage you highlighted was intended as facetious hyperbole (as was in fact most of the rest), Stu does this better, so I apologise and will retire non-gracefully.
    @de, juha
    There are a couple of issues. One needs to be very certain that a person is really a bully and not just temporarily manifesting as one. I do not think this has been proven in the case of the writer’s response. Then one must be certain that actions taken standing up to the bully are suitable and proportionate. I do not believe this to be the case in the example of the writer’s response (I can only understand the strength and vehemence of the response as laying down a mark pour décourager les autres). Finally, if one commits to an extended campaign, one must have clear objectives, convince oneself that the likely outcome (not the ideal outcome) is better than some sort of negotiated status quo, and be prepared to continue until and stop as soon as the objectives are achieved. I am not sure how this applies to the conflict in Ukraine or to other current or hypothetical conflicts.

  31. Stu Clayton says

    @PP: facetious hyperbole … Stu does this better

    Thank you, dear, it’s nice to get some positive feedback every once in a while ! In moments of self-doubt I feel like a drag queen busking to an empty Venetian piazza.

  32. Stu Clayton says

    TIL: guyperbole

  33. I had a look at some of Damon Young’s columns, because I didn’t know his work before. One word to describe his columnist persona would be nice. He talks about difficult things, but comes across as the guy who’s looking to make peace with everyone and everything.

    (And as he says—factually, not boasting—he’s an excellent writer, better than a number of other WaPo columnists.)

    When someone like him gets this mad (others would be a lot ruder about it), it really stands out. A snarky thanks-for-sharing, bless-your-heart might work for other people: not him.

  34. David Marjanović says

    This is not a helpful way to interact with people.

    Thank you.

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