On Grammar

I’ve recently started an online English language course so that I can become a certified proofreader, in the hope that I can stabilise my current freelance existence, escaping this awful city and living a writer’s life cheaply. (Please help me, I keep writing thousands of words on a blog for free but struggle to pay my rent. Please someone tell me what am I doing wrong?) It turns out that the course is a lot more intense than I anticipated.

I imagined my main struggle would be learning all the BSI marks, but as I try to get to grips with the technical nomenclature and rules around grammar, it is clear that I had a lot more to worry about.

It’s leading to a very strange sort of writer’s block. (Again, no one really notices my writer’s blocks except me — they’re more diarrhetic than constipated; not full forms that are stuck in production but an overflowing of formlessness. A lovely metaphor, I know; you’re welcome.) Every sentence I write at the moment feels ill-formed and awkward in this way, as I try to internalise and learn as much technical grammar as I can — a lot of which reads terribly, to my eyes, even if it is technically correct.


Whilst I’m pursuing this course for purely practical reasons, it is also leading to an odd shift in my thinking about philosophy. It’s illuminating Derrida for me, for example, in ways that are denuding both for the better and for the worse.

As I embark on a section about verbs and their functionality, I read the words: “the verb ‘to be’ is the most irregular verb at all” — a sentence that seems to contain an inadvertent profundity; an exaggeration of Derridean banality, uttered in all seriousness.

Nevertheless, it is an odd truism. It is also a useful fact to consciously acknowledge. The majority of sentences use it in some form. As a result, it transforms linguistics into a grammatology quite explicitly, as if all writing were structured by the very grammar of ontology. Now I can’t stop reading sentences and picking out the subject-object constructions, lingering over the innate correlationism of the English language. It doesn’t make me like Derrida, however; it makes me feel a philosophical pomophobia all the more intensely.

But I am also enjoying this return back to (online) school. I’m enjoying the challenge. Technical grammar is fucking difficult. On the one hand, it is a case of learning by rote the names and functions of the constituent parts of sentences (so that I might be better at understanding what writers are doing and where they have gone wrong); on the other, for someone like me at least, with no other formal linguistic training (apart from an A Level in English Literature), it means gradually unpicking all the habits of unthought I’ve accumulated over the last three decades.

I had my first taste of this whilst going through the preparatory process for Egress. I’m still trying to train myself out of my grammatical complacency. This time, however, it feels even more brutal. Since this activity is not in the service of any final, almost-finished project of my own, my self-reflections devolved into pure linguistic masochism instead.

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