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Love in the Time of McKean's Law
Sunday, July 8, 2007   7:55 PM

Since this week's NYT "On Language" column is about a snoot's search for love, I should also mention that Epstein's rambling second sentence is full of stuff that her fellow snoots might object to:
One day, as a cure for a broken heart, a heart that had only barely survived a head-on collision with another heart, a heart just out of intensive care, bruised and limping and still shying at the sound of any traffic, I decided to go online to find distraction in the arms of other, virtual men and maybe, as a bonus, a suitable replacement for the one no longer in my life, to meet someone the normal way, as opposed to the archaic, anachronistic, so 1970s way I had met HIM — I'd had my skis (nearly) charmed off me at 10,000 feet by my instructor, who was trying, with a dribble of luck but gallons of patience, to teach me how to jump turn on telemark skis.

Faced with this sentence, a prescriptivist might ask some foolish questions:

Is a distinction being lost here between cure and heal? If heart is a flowery synecdoche for person, would we say "I got into a head-on collision with another person"? Are the men virtual, or just their arms? If the former, are you trying to find a replacement for the virtual man no longer in your life? Should the adjectival phrase so 1970s be hyphenated when it proceeds a noun? Why is nearly in parentheses? And can telemark not stand alone, or is there some reason why you wrote that you were (nearly) charmed off your skis while on your skis?

As for me, I don't particular care for the sentence, but I agree with the thrust of the article: in any real life situation that matters, grammar snob oneupsmanship is a fool's game. A fun one.

And yet...

What few people seem to realize is that it's also a game that nearly everyone can play; society functions as well as it does because most people confine themselves to WTF reactions and tolerate the rest of us. Epstein seems to have brushed up against the boundaries of that tolerance, and in toning it down I think it's clear that she made the right choice.

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The grammar muggles are actually even more generous than mere tolerance would suggest — they actually look to us as authorities in certain situations. I find it enormously gratifying that I can get some measure of respect for working with language(!) even from coworkers who would have little-to-no interest in my language geekery in its pure form.

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