Arts & Culture

Gertrude Stein’s Radical Grammar

“Revolting” question marks, codependent commas, and the apostrophes that speak to our weakness

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I think about Gertrude Stein just about every day. Only last term, as I was handing back term papers to my Cinema Studies class, I quoted Stein. Commas are the slaves of the sentence, according to Stein, and we know that slavery is never a good thing. If the sentence can’t make sense without multiple commas, rewrite it. My students weren’t particularly happy about a grammar lesson, but I felt they needed it. Even in third year courses, they make a lot of mistakes. And Gertrude Stein can always tell you what they are. The elements of grammar were matters of passionate commitment for Stein.

Lynne Truss has nothing on Gertrude Stein, let me tell you. Truss’s bestselling Eats, Shoots & Leaves (2003) is a cri de coeur for the niceties of classical grammar. She rails about “plummeting punctuation standards,” especially the “satanic sprinkling of redundant apostrophes” in the contemporary world of family-store signs, graffiti, advertising, and even journalism. Excess commas and apostrophes, for Truss, “will trigger a ghastly private emotional process similar to the stages of bereavement, though greatly accelerated. First there is shock. Within seconds, shock gives way to disbelief, disbelief to pain, and pain to anger. Finally (and this is where the analogy breaks down), anger gives way to a righteous urge to perpetrate an act of criminal damage with the aid of a permanent marker.”

Stein was also something of a grammarian, but of a decidedly different sort, and there is no rule or convention in Eats, Shoots & Leaves that Stein didn’t already know. After a brief sojourn at the vast British Museum Library, Stein claimed that she had read every word. She had ideas to burn, and in the fast, new, modern world everything was up for grabs. Stein’s iconoclastic views couldn’t provide a more telling contrast to Truss’s curmudgeonly reflections on today’s grammatical catastrophes.

I have to admit that I’m of two minds about all this. Yes, we know that language changes and new ideas come about in the process. Yet I find myself reverting to the clarities of grammar as a tool for thinking. Stein wouldn’t agree with me, I know—and that’s why, perversely, I find myself entranced with her notions about language. It’s good to be shaken up, to encounter a thoroughly provocative view.

Gertrude Stein will do that for you. An eccentric figure in English literature, she nevertheless left a legacy of witty observations about life in the modern world, which resulted in several enduring classics and a devoted fan base. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933) remains one of the great books on the first decades of modernity.

Even if readers haven’t heard of Stein, they will likely recognize the phrase “A rose is a rose is a rose.” Or they will have seen a New Yorker cartoon that refers to a Stein anecdote or phrase—some take on “pigeons on the grass, alas” was once a consistent beat. Even in more popular and unlikely contexts, references to Stein, probably unrecognized, turn up regularly. When I was doing my Ph.D. on Stein, there was a sports headline about a hockey player: “Larose is Larose is Larose.”

Stein was above all a modernist, and as such she speaks vibrantly to our times, when hopes and fears for the future preoccupy us more than ever. Today, the great utopian aspirations of modernity, the urge to create something new and wonderful using ordinary means for the benefit of all (industrial design, new materials, democratic institutions) are objects of nostalgic longing. In the twenty-first century, postmodern dystopias surround us—globalization, loss of national and cultural identities, fundamentalism, environmental disasters—and theorists of the contemporary world scramble to find a positive spin to reinvigorate our dreams for the future. Stein spoke to the struggles of modernity from the point of view of an insider, and her reflections, while radical, remain pertinent.

Stein’s embrace of modernism was ecstatic. She ordered a Model T Ford from the United States to barrel around France during World War I, delivering supplies to hospitals and giving lifts to soldiers. When they first got the car, Stein’s partner, Alice B. Toklas, suggested that Stein should take it apart completely and put it back together again so that she would know how it worked. Although she declined to dismantle the car, Stein could change a spark plug herself. With Toklas as the navigator, Stein drove as idiosyncratically as she wrote, at top speed and always against the lines. A friend later commented that Stein “regarded a corner as something to cut, and another car as something to pass, and she could scare the daylights out of all concerned.”

Imperious hostess of a legendary salon on the rue de Fleurus near the Luxembourg Gardens, which was frequented by the likes of Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thornton Wilder, and modernist composer Virgil Thomson, Stein finally had a hit with The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, an audacious paean to her own genius purportedly written in Toklas’s voice. Stein had always insisted that writing was very different from talking, but in this book she put her own vivacious style of conversation into prose, creating a figure of herself as a brilliant chronicler of nearly thirty years in one of the most stimulating and important periods of modern culture. Irreverent, grandly egotistical, and chock full of gossip, the book immediately became a bestseller and made her a star—something she had always wanted.

In 1934, in the wake of her success, Stein returned to the United States—her arrival at the New York seaport greeted by adoring fans—for a triumphal lecture tour before sold-out audiences. She traversed the country by airplane, her first trips in the sky. Those flights over the American prairies, with their two-dimensional flatness and geometrical shapes, confirmed her view that Cubism was the authentic modern vision of the world, and as a result of this, language and grammar were also available for renovation. The text of those talks, Lectures in America (1935), sets out her radical ideas about life, writing, politics, and modern culture in a unique and engaging style.

The talks are not just about language, of course, but now that Eats, Shoots & Leaves has stimulated a renewed appetite for old-world grammar and diction, we need to look at the tasty morsels that Stein had to contribute on that front. In Lectures in America, Stein expounds on nouns, adjectives, punctuation, and sentence structure in a way that grabs the rules of writing and shakes them by the tail.

Stein was passionate about grammar. “I really do not know that anything has ever been more exciting than diagramming sentences,” Stein said. She found parsing sentences to be “completely exciting and completely completing.” I completely agree. One line for subject, two for predicate, three for object. Wiggly lines for something. My favourites were the triangular brackets—I just can’t remember what they were for. The exercise taught me about the construction of language as a system of coding. Stein probably didn’t see it that way, of course; for her, it seems to have had something to do with finding the underlying logic of language, its inner mechanics, and with working out how language could be reconfigured to suggest new ways of thinking. Stein seems to have instinctively understood that language is an invented thing, floating free of the world, and that we are at liberty to bend it to our impulses and needs.

In prose, Stein wanted her sentences “to go on,” reflecting the stream-of-consciousness process that she had learned as a student of William James. She therefore abolished nouns from her prose because they nail things down. What, after all, are nouns besides the names of things? “A noun is a name of anything, why after a thing is named write about it. A name is adequate or it is not.” Instead, she constructed sentences from “verbs adverbs prepositions prepositional clauses and conjunctions.”

In poetry it was different, as poetry essentially has to do with vocabulary. “Poetry is concerned with using with abusing, with losing with wanting, with denying with avoiding with adoring with replacing the noun,” Stein wrote. So when she wrote her famous motto, “A rose is a rose is a rose is a rose” (which Toklas embroidered in a circle on Stein’s handkerchiefs), she “caressed completely caressed and addressed a noun.”

In addition to her abhorrence for nouns, Stein had still more philosophical trouble with nominatives: “People if you like to believe it can be made by their names. Call anybody Paul and they get to be a Paul call anybody Alice and they get to be an Alice.” Her analysis was prescient. We are now in a moment when one-dimensional designations are obsolete; meanings are fluid and porous, and they change with history and culture. And because nouns are so static, they have to be ceaselessly rejuvenated: “That is the reason that slang exists it is to change the nouns which have been names for so long.”

For the same reason, adjectives are as useless as nouns: “Of course the first thing that anybody takes out of anybody’s writing are the adjectives.” Other aspects of sentences that Stein reviled include question marks, which she found “positively revolting” and never could bring herself to use. For Truss, “it does matter that there’s no question mark on a direct question. It is appalling ignorance.” Stein, on the other hand, saw the interrogative sign as unnecessary and ugly, and “anyway what is the use, if you do not know that a question is a question what is the use of its being a question.” Question marks were only interesting upside down, possibly as cattle brands.

The same goes for quotation marks and, especially, exclamation marks. Stein was convinced that everyone agreed with her, and I must say that I always have. Recently I saw a sign that said “Burgers! Shakes! Fries!” I could only ask: what other rapturous enticements might this joint possibly offer? Or more abjectly: how are burgers, shakes, and fries exciting in any way? My friend commented that at least they weren’t also in quotation marks, causing us to suspect that “burgers,” “shakes,” and “fries” might be euphemisms for something more sinister.

At the same time, Stein was onside with Lynne Truss about apostrophes for possession. In Eats, Shoots & Leaves, Truss is apoplectic about the incorrect use of apostrophes. She spends a paragraph on the film title Two Weeks Notice, recalling that a bus poster for the film caused her to freeze in her tracks, rendering her “unable to move or, indeed, regain any sense of perspective.” Slightly more sanguine, Stein viewed the “possessive case apostrophe” as a “little punctuation mark one can have feelings about.” For Stein the possessive apostrophe “has a gentle tender insinuation that makes it very difficult to definitely decide to do without it.” But unlike Truss, Stein is against the use of the apostrophe alone, outside the plural word (as in Two Weeks’ Notice) and in that case feels no regret; but inside a word, “perhaps it does appeal by its weakness to your weakness.”

I can’t help but admit that the incorrect use of apostrophes, as in its’ when it should be it’s, or it’s when it should be its, irritates me. I find myself incapable of letting my students make what I consider a serious mistake—even though Stein more liberally suggests that she finds herself ” letting it alone if it has come in and sometimes it has come in.”

On the other hand, Stein found verbs and adverbs far more interesting. Verbs and adverbs are engaging because they are active and their great quality is that “they can be so mistaken. It is wonderful the number of mistakes a verb can make.” The wretched noun is rarely mistaken, but the verb can enrich the language in its infinite flexibility. Parts of language are interesting, for Stein, precisely because of their risk of failure. For that exciting quality—the possibility of error— she liked prepositions best of all, because of all the parts of a sentence they can be the most mistaken.

Rather more than prepositions, I find myself talking about conjunctions to my students. “Therefore” is not a conjunction and so cannot be inserted with a comma like “but” or “and.” For Stein a conjunction “has a force that need not make any one feel that they are dull. Conjunctions have made themselves live by their work.” And it’s clear what that work is: conjunctions are among the basic logical units that determine what makes a sentence meaningful or not.

And now, it’s time to come to “the real question of punctuation, periods, commas, colons, semicolons and capitals and small letters.” Periods for Stein were problematic, although they had to be tolerated. After all, “physically one had to again and again stop sometime and if one had to again and again stop some time then periods had to exist . . . I did believe in periods and I used them.”

But commas and semicolons? No, never. “Commas are servile they have no life of their own they are dependent upon use and convenience and they are put there for practical purposes.” In fact, commas for Stein were (in contemporary parlance) codependent enablers: “A comma by helping you along holding your coat for you and putting on your shoes keeps you from living your life as actively as you should lead it . . . the use of them was positively degrading.” Semicolons were equivalent to commas, effectively slaves of the sentence.

I don’t feel as strongly about commas as Stein did, and who can, really? And there’s the dreaded question mark.