Arika Okrent tapped into a universal feeling of realization and dread when she wrote her winning entry for the 2013 National Grammar Day Tweeted Haiku contest:
I am an error And I will reveal myself After you press send
Soon after, she tweeted an amendment to add missing quotation marks:
Make that “send”
“It became a self-fulfilling haiku,” Okrent said. “I wish I could say I planned it that way.”
Sticklers might accuse us of further stretching the definition of “grammar” (the second-place winner out of 269 entries was about punctuation). Grammar is commonly used as a catch-all for the way we present ourselves verbally. Okrent’s haiku speaks to all those errors we invariably make when we’re trying to be careful writing a letter, sending a tweet or updating a Facebook status.
But she has her own theory about why errors reveal themselves after we hit “send.” I asked her via e-mail to tell us about the motivation for the winning haiku:
“I was thinking about the fact that there is always some mistake I ONLY see when a piece is published,” she said. “I imagine those mistakes as little sentient beings who hide behind some kind of pixel invisibility cloak giggling until they throw off the cloak at publication.”
She’s not just a word geek. Okrent is probably our first winner who speaks Klingon. She also speaks American Sign Language, which is very cool, but let me repeat: She speaks Klingon. I hoped she’d have a Klingon haiku to share.
“I don’t usually write poetry, but I love to respond to little creative challenges that let me put off work a bit longer,” she wrote. “I have never penned a poem in Klingon, but I have performed in a Klingon version of Hamlet.”
Okrent, 42, talks about Klingon in her “In the Land of Invented Languages.”
She picked up the gauntlet in the 2011 National Grammar Day Tweeted Haiku contest, earning an honorable mention for this haiku:
Each writer who writes he/she should stand up and fight for singular “they”
And she wrote this, a favorite of mine, in 2011:
Serial commas tiny poison-tipped curved darts in the style-guide wars
I had to ask, Okrent being a linguist, about her thoughts on the tired-old battle between so-called “prescriptivists” and those who use the label “descriptivists.”
“I like grammar! And I think usage standards are useful. But I’d like to get rid of the idea that they are the glue that holds society together,” she wrote. “I wish there were a way to promote respect for non-standard dialects without people accusing you of calling for an end to civilization.
“Maybe one day we’ll have an ‘American Grammars Pavillion’ at the National Grammar Day fair where people can sample bits of Louisiana Creole, Appalachian English, and American Spanglish and come out amazed that no matter what people do with language, they end up with a system.”
Her doctorate came from the University of Chicago, and she lives in Philadelphia, where she sometimes makes bagels.
Her name, by the way, is pronounced like Erika. Okrent is OAK-rent.
The initial screening of our 269 entries was done by a freelance copy editor and his amenable wife, an Ohio State University education professor. They culled the list down to the top 10 entries, plus about seven more they couldn’t ignore. A five-judge panel of word experts then added another dozen or so favorites to that list. They then entered the virtual grammar conclave to discuss and vote on the winners.
Our esteemed judges were:
- Martha Barnette (@MarthaBarnette), host of the nationally syndicated public radio program “A Way with Words,” public speaker and author of several books.
- Martha Brockenbrough (@mbrockenbrough), founder of National Grammar Day and the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar, and author of “Things That Make Us (Sic)” and the young adult novel “Devine Intervention.”
- Larry Kunz (@larry_kunz), winner of the 2012 National Grammar Day Tweeted Haiku Contest, a technical writer in Raleigh-Durham, N.C., area, project manager and senior information developer for SDI Global Solutions, instructor at Duke University, and fellow with the Society for Technical Communication.
- Bill Walsh (@TheSlot), Washington Post copy editor and author of “Lapsing into a Comma,” “The Elephants of Style,” and the forthcoming, “Yes, I Could Care Less: How to Be a Language Snob Without Being a Jerk.”
- Ben Zimmer (@bgzimmer), executive producer of Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com, language columnist for the Boston Globe, and a frequent guest commentator on emerging words and language issues.
Check out the official National Grammar Day website for more March 4 activities.
Mark Allen is a freelance editor in Columbus, Ohio, a supplier of tweeted grammar tips as @editormark and a member of the executive board of the American Copy Editors Society. A version of this article first appeared on his website, MarkAllenEditing.com. (Image via)