In 1991, I saw a movie called Impromptu. It focused on French Romantic novelist George Sand (played by Judy Davis in the movie—the real George Sand is pictured in a well-known photo by Nadar) and the group of writers, artists, and composers who spent time in and around Paris in the 1830s. I was living in Madison, Wisconsin when the movie came out, and I can’t remember clearly now how many times I saw it. I do know that when I left the theater after the first viewing—it was at the beautiful Orpheum Theater on State Street, if memory serves on that point—I wanted to be George Sand more than I’ve ever wanted to be anybody (other than me—I like being me).
George Sand is the pseudonym of Aurore Dupin. Impromptu focused mainly on the relationship between Sand and the composer Chopin (played by Hugh Grant), and while I could talk about this movie for hours, I’m trying to keep to the point. Seeing Impromptu caused me to idealize a writer whose work I had not, at that time, ever even read. So what was my reason? Other writers I would have happily exchanged places with were writers whose work I knew well—Edna St. Vincent Millay, for example—but why George Sand? My main reason, to put it simply, might well have been because her character spent much of the movie wearing pants.
Women in 1830s Paris did not often wear pants. I’ve been looking into the history of women and pants (and slacks and trousers), and there has been an interesting tension between wearing them for physical work (like mining or farming) and wearing them for fashion. I originally set out to find differences in terminology for what we can also call “business bifurcated garments” (really) but ended up thinking that our instincts are pretty much on point (this conversation came up a few weeks ago at the writing center where I tutor). “Trousers,” at least in American English, sound like a bit of an affectation, and “slacks” sound slightly more formal than “pants.” “Pants” seems to include denim, by most definitions.
So there doesn’t seem to be a tremendous difference in pant terminology, but regardless, it often matters a great deal what we call something—or someone. To return to George Sand, when she began publishing work, she adopted a male pseudonym. But from what I’ve read of her life, there doesn’t seem to have been much mystery about her identity, and she became quickly famous in literary circles. But what does it mean to change your name? To shift identity and perception through what you call yourself, what you wear, and what words you use to describe your ideas and what you see around you?
When I was a junior in high school, I started spelling my name differently—”Jenyfer” instead of “Jennifer.” I had to explain to all of my teachers—and essentially everyone I interacted with—that it was pronounced the same but spelled differently. Why did I do this? Or, why did I do this other than teenage poet affectation? While I can’t ask my younger self why she did anything, I can guess that it was about identity and independence. But we also name things other than ourselves, and being able to both read and write with a critical awareness can be a great source of empowerment. And though I’ve not mentioned grammar yet, to me, that connection is clearly there.
Rhetorical grammar might not be a term that everyone is familiar with, but it’s one that I first learned through Martha Kolln’s wonderful Rhetorical Grammar: Grammatical Choices, Rhetorical Effects. In essence, rhetorical grammar takes an approach that is choice based—the idea that grammar can be a set of tools rather than a set of potential errors. This distinction is what I consider the foremost important thing to say about grammar. And while rhetorical grammar takes many elements into account, I’m mainly focusing on word choice here.
I make use of Laura Micciche’s article “Making a Case for Rhetorical Grammar” when I teach. While Micciche is addressing the way that grammar is approached in the composition classroom, more far-reaching outcomes can be addressed as well. She brings up the goals of “effective communication,” and while she is specifically talking about students, I think that what she lists are vastly relevant to all: “to produce effective writing that has some relevancy to the world we live in, to see language as having an empowering and sometimes transformative potential, and to critique normalizing discourses that conceal oppressive functions.” So much is happening in Micciche’s words—the ability to transform and also critique that which oppresses us—what amazing power that is!
Learning about rhetorical grammar and its importance played a large part in what made me want to continue talking to people about their experiences with grammar. Word choice matters, in some instances much more than others. Awareness of how others position themselves through their words is an important part of understanding the texts we read. The ideas that Kolln and Micciche bring up are ones that are foundational to me, and I’ll certainly revisit them here again. But back to Impromptu: when I first saw the movie, I regretted not living in a world where it would be meaningful to wear trousers as a woman—but I’ve come to see that it is always meaningful to be who we are.
And in closing, I want to say a few words about what’s next for Grammar Fairy Godmother and to tender sincere thanks for reading. Many of you have given me wonderful ideas for future posts—look for more about commas, more about writer confidence, and some thoughts on ponchos. I also plan to bring in a few guest bloggers—I hope you’re looking forward to that as much as I am. See you again next week!