Panel, 2007 4C’s; “Dude! Where’s My Voice? Language, Identity, and the Working-Class Writing Instructor”
It’s Alight (sic) Ma. I’m Only Bleeding
I don’t have much of a memory to begin with. So I rarely remember the time, place, or occasion when I first read something. I don’t remember for example when I first opened Crime and Punishment—the most important reading of my youth—but I do remember where I was when I first read John Updike’s review of Fowler’s Modern English Usage in the New Yorker. It was December of 1996. I usually don’t read Updike because I don’t like him. And most of the time I would not have paid attention to any sort of review of a book like Fowler’s Modern English Usage. But, as I said, I remember where I was when I read the article. I was in the bathroom and there was nothing else to read.
So as I waited for nature to take its course, I perused one might say the article. Still why should I remember this occasion—that’s what interests me, about myself mostly. Well, as I was reading along and mostly not following what was said, I found myself reading about my old nemesis “all right.” I say nemesis because I had always had to look up “all right” to see if it was one or two words. Every time, I would forget; every time it wouldn’t stick.
After that reading in the New Yorker, however, and ever since I have remembered it as “two words” because the new editor of Fowlers had written: ‘The use of all right, or inability to see that there is anything wrong with alright, reveals one’s background, upbringing, education, etc. perhaps as much as any word in the language’ I could only conclude that my ongoing inability to remember that all right was two words was as clear an indication, to those in the know, as any in the language that my “background, upbringing, and education” were sub-par.
I guess that’s why I remember the occasion. I got really pissed off sitting there, thinking about it—that one word should so effectively place one on the social scale. Clearly I failed instinctively, on the basis of my education, upbringing, and background, to find something wrong with alright (one word) or surely over the years I would not have kept forgetting that it was one (excuse me, two) word. I had tried previously and I tried again to determine what exactly was wrong about alright as one word. I thought I was missing something of grammatical or linguistic importance. The editor for example writes that the expression or form “between him and I” was a barbarian abomination that has to be nipped in the bud. I could understand why this might be the case because “between him and I” suggests the inability of the writer or speaker to differentiate between the subject of a sentence and the object of a preposition.
But finding nothing illogical, unreasonably, or ungrammatical about alright and feeling that I was lacking in some critical insight because I failed to see anything wrong with it, I went out the next day and actually bought Fowler’s to see if I might find there further explanation (something more at least than Updike had reported). I found, according to Fowler, that alright (one word) is the demotic form of all right (two words); Fowler continues:
It is preferred, to judge from the evidence I have assembled, by popular sources like the British magazines The Face (Kool and The Gang are alright. They put on a good show, 1986), the New Musical Express, and Sounds, the American magazine Black World, the Australian journal Southerly, the Socialist Worker, by popular singers (Elvis sings five numbers including the memorable `That’s Alright Mama’—Oxford Times, 1979), and hardly ever by writers of standing (You’ll he alright, love—C. Achebe, 1987; ‘Yes, they visit tombs and live in ashrams alright,’ Farrokh sneered—A, Desai, 1988). It is common-place in private correspondence, esp. in that of the moderately educated young. Almost all other printed works in Britain and abroad use the more traditional form.
I have to say I didn’t find this any help at all. This wasn’t an explanation for why alright is wrong anymore than saying that opium puts a person to sleep because of its soporific qualities. Or to rephrase the matter: alright was wrong because in a form of sociological ad hominim there is something wrong with the people who fail to see that it is wrong, people for example who read “Black World” and The Socialist Worker and who listen to music from Kool and the Gang and Elvis. And that something wrong is that such people are somewhat moderately or poorly educated, unlike those persons who use the tradition form and who one must assume are therefore highly educated.
This didn’t help me to be any less pissed off. The whole damn thing rankled. I had to ask myself though of all the things I always have to be pissed off about why in God’s name would I waste my anger upon something as trivial as the proper usage of alright. Was I utterly lacking in any self-esteem. Possibly. I was put in mind of Bourdieu’s claim, somewhere in Distinctions, that if one acquires some culture, but is not to the manner (manor) born, that culture will weight on the person who has had to acquire and was not simply born into it. One will, if one is the proper sort, always be able to spot those not born to the manner (manor) because they will sweat under the burden of their culture. That’s what I was doing, wasn’t I, sweating really by getting so ticked off at something so transparently trivial.
Part of the problem may be the situation of my early language acquisition. I spent my first ten years in a very rural part of South Carolina and was raised, in those environs, by an unstable mother, an illegal alien from Canada, who thought, at least, that she spoke the Queen’s English and was set upon making sure that I and my siblings were not contaminated either in speaking or in writing by the linguistic catastrophe surrounding us as represented in the speech of my father, my aunts and uncles, my neighbors and my cousins. How I spoke did not feel trivial to me as a small boy, especially when I got whacked for not speaking correctly. My mother of course did not want her children growing up speaking southern English or with heaven forbid that accent because as everybody knows people who speak in that manner and with that accent are uniformly stupid.
Little things like “ain’t” were not trivial at all. We could not distinguish ourselves as proper by the clothes we wore or the house we lived in or the car we drove, since we had no money, but even so we were in control of our mouths and might at least speak properly and so distinguish ourselves. And, of course, in speaking properly and in engaging in an uphill battle against that insidious accent I separated (as my mother was attempt to separate herself) from my relatives, many of whom lived within a mile, and of course from my father. Speaking correctly and learning to do so was then no small matter when embedded, as it was, in a complex social and perhaps even oedipal situation.
Some time after I first bought Fowlers I was teaching a class linked with an introduction to biology. I had nothing but biology majors in the class; and trying to bone up writing in the sciences, I sought out some how to write science textbooks. They differed considerably given the particular discipline involved but at one level these texts were all the same and resolutely backwards. They seemed old fashioned handbooks with a strong emphasis on clarity, precision and correct grammar. I determined to give a little lecture introduction on grammar, usage and the importance thereof complete with overheads on one of which I typed out the Fowler entry as I have read it here.
I don’t know what I was thinking about but I began by asking if anybody knew whether alright was one word or two words, and of course nobody did. I then read the selection from Fowler pointing out to them that their inability to know what was correct was a sign that their backgrounds were suspicious, and that they were only moderately educated. And that no matter what they did they would always be the case, never more than moderately educated and with suspicious backgrounds. So unless they wished to be judge negatively by the vicious snots of this world they should do their best to bone up on things like alright and for god sake’s work on their prepositions. For there were, as I continued to remind them, people in this world who would take their grammatical lapses, their egregious solecisms, as it were, as indicative of the fact that they are illiterates if not downright stupid, in a genetically determined sense.
For language and one’s use of it was much like one’s clothes, or the car one drives, or the house one lives in: a sign of one’s social station. For language, like clothes and cars and houses, was a way members of particular groups recognized other members of their group and others that were not. Was this fair? Why no, of course, not. But whoever said life was fair. It’s just a fact Jack.
I recognized that I had begun to rant. My tone was harsh, my inflection sharp. I was preaching and I was preaching cynicism, as far as I was concerned. I didn’t believe a word of it. They could spell alright as one word and would not give a damn about it. I would not even notice it. And if the used “data” as singular, I wouldn’t care about that either. But I was stuck in my rant and to get out of it and leaven the loaf a bit, I sat down and in a but-seriously-folks tone of voice, said that I wished the nation had a national grammarian, and were there such a post I would run for the office, and I would serve without pay if I were allowed to fine and possibly jail repeat offenders.
For example, I would sit around of a Saturday and I would fine every goddamn fucking jock sports caster who dropped the “ly’s” on his adverbs. There would be no point in the office if it didn’t have teeth. So after their sports cast those jokers would get one serious citation. Then came the people who read the news—or whatever the hell they did with it–many of whom had not mastered subject-verb agreement. And politicians—my god, but was that another disgusting group. As far as I could tell, unless we did in fact create the office of national grammarian, I saw no hope at all for the language. We were doomed to drown in a sea of egregious solecisms. Whereupon I asked if any of them knew what an egregious solecisms was. None of them did. And rather than pursue their ignorance I step further, I said it was time for a break.
I had managed to work myself up into a fiddle-faddle and was worried my students might think I had gone insane. I thought about apologizing for my untoward outburst, but noting in them their usual unperturbed and imperturbable languor I determined to let sleeping dogs lie. They probably hadn’t notice a thing. The turmoil had been all inside. And why—that’s the question, I asked myself then, and am still asking today—what was there about alright that got me so worked up. Maybe it was Elvis.
I was not given as a teenager to hero worship but if I had two heroes in my early teens they were Micky Mantle and Elvis Presley. And Elvis sang a song, according to this Fowler guy, called “It’s Alright Mama.” Who the hell was this Fowler guy to so casually and with such insouciance pee on Elvis. Elvis was like me, a poor southern white. I guess he was of suspicious origins, only moderately educated. I expect Elvis died there on his toilet without every knowing whether all right was one or two words or even that there was some sort of question about the matter.
And who the hell cares if Elvis didn’t know. When you sing alright, you can’t tell if it’s one or two words or not. And maybe that’s what it’s all about really deep down, the difference between those who have heard something but not read it. I am not talking here about some sort of metaphysical difference between the written and the spoken, but about the separation of those that speak and learn by hearing and those that write and learn by reading. Between those, largely middle class professionals, those who publish the books, write the copy, and control the news, determining thereby what is important and what is not; and all the other even less than moderately educated people who don’t do any of these things.
This is about class then and about power. About the middle class and the lower classes. About the fact that the middle and upper classes control the media and also controleducation, what it is, how it is delivered and to whom. When, increasingly, day after day that to whom: is the middle class itself. Recent reports indicate the cost of higher education continues to rise and rise; even middle class parents are feeling the pinch if they have two children in college. As for the lower middle and the lower class—most of them are being pinched out of the education picture completely, at a time, moreover, when some form of higher education seems essential to acquiring a decent job in this new economy.
I really hate to think, given where I have come from, that I now act in my little first year, introduction to writing course as kind of gate keeper separating those who are in the know about such things as “alright” from those who aren’t, praising the former while heaping humiliation on the latter. While this might be part of what I am supposed to do, I don’t do a very good job of it because, as I believe I have indicated, I am a lousy teacher of grammar. I just get too worked up about it. I just get into too much of a sweat about it to approach the subject with the proper aplomb. So what am I doing here—sweating like this. I don’t think Elvis knew anything about “alright,” and even if he had I don’t think he would have given a shit one way or the other. I give a shit because I moved up via cultural capital, and so found myself sitting in the bathroom, reading the New Yorker of all things. It’s like I am hoist on my own petard.
I conclude, just for kicks, with the following from my Bob Dylan: song book that I bought in 1974 for 6.95:
Pointed threats, they bluff with scorn
Suicide remarks are torn
From the fool’s gold mouthpiece
The hollow horn plays wasted words
Proves to warn
That he not busy being born
Is busy dying.
So don’t fear if you hear
A foreign sound to your ear
It’s alright, Ma, I’m only sighing.
That alright. It’s one word.