Nazism

So, if you're a grammar Nazi, then feats of form and usage that strike you as "wrong" (or inferior, or jarring) fairly leap off the page or screen at you in just the same way that my use of "so" at the start of this sentence irks all who are by now fed up with hearing that word abused that way.

The French have an expression for obvious things and especially for things obviously wrong: ça saute aux yeux! That leaps out at the eyes! Like an eye-attacking deathfrog of death. Or blindness. Or blinding obviousness.

Many folks notice deviations from canonical grammar and usage; the Nazi is the one who sees most or all, all the time, until she's fed up. She feels welling up within her an urgent, primal cry in behalf of the norms she has embraced, the quirky irrationales of the tongues to which she's wedded. The Nazi is the one for whom, involuntarily, cela saute aux yeux. Finally, with eggshell sensitivity to the descriptivists and positivists, she pipes up: "perhaps you should reconsider using 'begs the question' in that way." Then she ducks.

Have you been watching the newish BBC series Sherlock? I enjoyed the Holmes stories as a child but wasn't passionate about them. I enjoyed them again as an adult with the same result, but with an admixture of pity and contempt for the racism, sexism, inconsistency, and lack of complexity. I enjoyed them (despite these and other flaws) because they project a world and an ill-fitting inhabitant of that world, and they spark the imagination to consider how that combination might play out– a worthwhile exercise (especially for the logically inclined).

I grew up in a time when Basil Rathbone was the archetypal realization of Sherlock. And his bumbling Watson, who had so little to do with the character described in Doyle, was the archetypal moronic foil. I watched the fading films, but I wasn't married to that realization. Years later, I tried to watch Jeremy Brett's Sherlock– many consider it definitive– but couldn't stomach his interpretation. I didn't reject it because Rathbone; I rejected it because reading. That Sherlockian series aimed within a reasonable margin to be faithful to the canon, so Brett's Holmes is one reader's way of expressing what he found there. What he found, however legitimately derived, isn't what I had found.

The Sherlock of Robert Downey, Jr? Uhm… nice Wing Chun. And I haven't seen Elementary. And I skipped House. (See? Hardly a passionate Irregular.)

The BBC's Sherlock, now entering its fourth season, doesn't aim to stay faithful to the canonical stories; it aims to stay aware of them, and to show this, while re-envisioning the series in a contemporary setting. In this respect, its fidelity is like that of the more recent Battlestar Galactica vis-à-vis the less recent one. And it's brilliant. Often contrived, but then so were the Doyle tales. Sometimes hilarious, always well acted, often clever. Fragmented for the postmodernists, ironic for the Xers, savvy for the millennials. It's a lot of fun.

The show is, among other things, a fabric of in-jokes and allusions, some of them reaching forward within the reimagined world and some reaching out and back toward its Victorian antecedent. That the "Sign of Four" becomes the "Sign of Three" is reaching back; how it does so is reaching forward. That extra layer of literary texture provides a lot of the pleasure.

A recurring motif in Sherlock is that facts and inferences from them jump out nearly involuntarily at Sherlock. Cela saute aux yeux! And the show makes this clear in a medieval way, by literally overlaying text on the screen near the things he's observing. (Sometimes, the overlaid text is used for other purposes, such as making clear to the viewer what has just been texted to someone's device regardless of whether Sherlock knows that. This dual use of superimposed content would be interesting to study more systematically if you're looking for a dissertation topic….)

One respect in which this new Sherlock is enjoyable is that he's clearly superhuman; no mnemonist, no prodigy, no abductive reasoner would or could infer and calculate at the pace and in the ways that he does. He's a freak, and he's presented as a freak. ("Do your research! A high-functioning sociopath!"). And this offers another pleasure: in those moments when we, viewers entangled in the quotidian, draw a little inference from a telling detail in real life, we not only feel like Sherspock but participate in his condescension. We rise above our mundane capacity and attain a height from which to criticize (on eggshells). Having tested the tapir, we fling the femur. We enjoy, however briefly, the subtle pleasures of superiority, enforcement, and reproof. (Oxfordian in commas; Stratfordian in dramas.)

For example, we may read the clickbait article How to Fix Open Offices at Fast Company because we have an innocent interest in rolling back the horror. But as soon as we reach the second paragraphette, ça saute aux yeux: "Ferrigan's team ­creates 'enclaves' for collaborative working…" (emphasis added).

We try to proceed, but the solecism will not allow it– not until we've at least privately acknowledged the nature of the blunder, gauged its importance, and decided whether to intervene. Involuntarily, we recognize inferences about the writer that may be drawn with high probability: Didn't study Latin. Doesn't know roots. Mixes Latinate and Germanic irrespective of stylistic effect. Is insensitive to redundancy. Missed the 19th century. Was proofed, if at all, by someone with similar deficits. Doesn't care.

One after another, the phrases float up like on-screen annotations in Sherlock, and they hesitate near the eyes before dissipating. Id and Superego enraged, we begin to start to commence formulating a plan for intervention. Then the ego reels us in, and (wistfully waving farewell to the condescendible moment) we decide that the game that would then be afoot ne vaut pas la chandelle. It wouldn't be received well. Why waste illumination where it's not wanted? Pearls before Quine, but squirrels prefer pine.

Fine. Annihilate all stylistic norms. Wallow in your positivism. At this point, what difference does it make? I will diminish and go into the west.

That's one example, but if you're a grammar or usage Nazi, you don't need me to tell you that the occasions proliferate, especially among members of generation whippersnapper.

Correction offers a brief high, but a potent one. It's too engaging, too consuming, to allow oneself to be carried away with every noted blunder. Too indulgent. Here's my advice: offer a solution only seven percent of the time. And that's final.

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