KEVIN RYAN

THE SENTENCE IS A LIVELY
PLACE
A REPORT ON THE GOTHAM GRAMMARIAN, A USAGE AND
STYLE GUIDE BY GARY LUTZ, SHORT-STORY WRITER,
GRAMMARIAN, AND EDITOR

JOUR 5020
Randy Loftis
March 9, 2016
2

THE GRAMMARIAN

According to Gary Lutz, The Gotham Grammarian is meant “for anyone who believes

that correctness and precision still matter” (p. 4). Readers familiar with Lutz’s fiction will likely

find this statement peculiar. Lutz write stories that dodge convention and tread opacity. He writes

stories that undulate, sting. His characters don’t usually have names or genders. Towns and cities

hardly exist, fleeting and anonymous. Each sentence is an entanglement of whirlwinding

catastrophes—at odds, it would seem, with correctness and precision.

In an article for Vice, Blake Butler describes the experience of reading Lutz for the first

time: “I went slower and slower as the pages progressed. Each sentence seemed to want to grab

me by the wrists—they kept bending inward on themselves and then opening backward onto

whatever was to come next, like an Escher drawing made out of language” (2013).
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The Gotham Grammarian contains none of the commotion found in Lutz’s fiction.

Instead, we find the work of a grammarian, whose writerly talents occasionally leap to the fore,

as if by accident, only to be put back again. Odder still, there’s a warmth to Gotham—a book

about grammar: a subject notoriously deprived of warmth, popularity—that is absent from his

fiction, which, admittedly, tends to concern itself with the haunted or strange. All throughout

Gotham, Lutz blazes with an eagerness to navigate the “cherishable eccentricities of our

language” (p. 109).

And for a serial rebel of grammar, Lutz boasts quite a knowledge of the subject: Before

Gotham, he literally wrote a manual on proper English usage: Grammar Desk Reference: The

Definitive Source for Clear and Correct Writing.

Think of a pronoun as the shadow of a noun.
—Gary Lutz

There is certainly no shortage of books on proper usage, but the majority stink of

bombast and conviction. In Gotham, though, the delivery is spry and clever. Lutz writes with the

nonchalance, the ease, of someone who knows the complexities of English grammar so well that

he can explain its mechanisms with simplicity and poise.

He begins with basic grammar: types of nouns and verbs, conjugation, phrases. As the

book moves along, he intensifies the training. Gotham’s overall format lends itself to the

precision and correctness that Lutz is after. Each chapter is devoted to a different grammatical

issue, with descriptions and examples.

For instance, the (cleverly-written) chapter about dangling modifiers:
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He then follows the description with an example of the misusage (marked off by a banana peel):

After further description, he offers possible solutions:
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THE WRITER

There is a weird mystery to Gary Lutz.

In his fiction, he devotes so much of his attention to tiny, perfected words that he breezes

past larger details. He burrows into unusual minutiae, scattershot things.

In “Street Map of the Continent,” for example, a librarian brings home a different book

every night and cleans the gutter of each page with a toothpick.

So many of his lines are hauntingly perfect. They are

drop-the-book good. The games he plays with words, deft

and rugged, always just barely out-of-reach.

With Gotham Grammarian, Lutz reveals his

machinations. Such unrestricted entrance almost feels

voyeuristic. It is like discovering how a magic trick is done.

Part of the sleight-of-hand in Lutz’s fiction is that he turns

grammar against itself. Yet any insight into Lutz’s literary style is not the purpose of Gotham.

Instead, Lutz devotes himself to the elucidation of grammar for the sake of the reader and the

benefit of the writer.

The book occasionally threatens to become an abbreviated re-hashing of what Lutz had

already covered in Grammar Desk Reference, though the compactness of Gotham encourages a

buoyancy into the fold. Perhaps his intertwining rules and jest even lends itself to bolder

rememberability. It is certainly more enjoyable than slogging through phonebooks.

His artistry thrives in the renovation of words.
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And his talents as a writer enlivens the book. Like the terse clarity when he says that

“[s]lipshod elliptical constructions are jarring instead of soothing” (p. 59). He believes that

sentences deserve life. He animates his sentences, defining their words in a newfangled way. He

tells us that “[p]ronouns and their antecedents cannot survive long distance relationships,” so we

ought not keep them apart (p. 37).

It also makes sense that Lutz, whose fiction is full of genderless characters, makes a point

in Gotham of using the feminine 3rd person personal pronoun, or, as he puts it: “With women’s

ascendancy on the educational world and in the workplace, not to mention the fact that women

outnumber men, why not adopt she and her as the default, go-to pronouns for any sentence about

a representative but unspecified human being?” (p. 29).

His sentences break rules, or else reconvene them.

The notion that under no circumstance should an infinitive be split persists
despite the fact that no editor or grammarian in her right mind has ever
issued any such prohibition.
—Gary Lutz

Throughout the book, he iterates the law of clarity: “A reader should not have to pluck

words out of thin air to round out a writer’s careless phrasing” (p. 59). And this hits on one of

Gotham’s recurring themes, namely Lutz’ aggressively reprimanding us, the writers. He’s

fighting for the reader, and he rebukes any writer careless enough to leave a reader confused.

Bluntly, he asks, “What is gained by alienating readers?” (p. 29). He scolds the lazy

writer for “cutting corners and outsourcing some of her work to the reader, [who] is expected to

rummage around in her head for an appropriate word or phrase” (p. 15).
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Lutz’s approach is unique in that it renames the fixtures of grammar in an effort to coax

out meaning, clearer meaning. He coins new terms for careworn phrases, as with the chapter

“That Bane of Grammarians the Inspissated Plentitive” (the last two words of which appear

together nowhere else in our language). In the chapter, he examines the erroneous use of

bracketed commas to separate a must-have appositive—he recasts essential and nonessential

appositives as “must-have appositives” and “throwaway appositives.” The issue, he suggests, is

that the appositive “rounds out the repast and can’t be removed from the menu” (p. 80). All the

while, Lutz provides few hints about the meaning of “inspissated plentitive,”and he doesn’t

mention it again till the chapter’s final line: “And thus we arrive at that most eagerly awaited of

revelations: the fact that there’s no such thing as an inspissated plentitive” (p. 80).

He calls commas “scythes”; dashes, “index fingers” (p. 80).

He describes unnecessary dependent conditional clauses as “cockamamie conditionals”

and excessive semicolons as “semicolonic blockages” (p. 61, 95).

Whenever we’re relating even the simplest of stories, we owe it to our readers
to arrange the events and actions in our narrative at clearly identifiable
points along a timeline so that the sequence is instantly understandable.
—Gary Lutz

Occasionally, however, his imaginative approach is burdensome, as with his

overelaborate explanation of misplaced noun clauses. In the sentence he uses as an example

(“She knows that if a person is on the street that it’s not necessarily due to laziness”), he refers to

the phrase “that it’s not not necessarily due to laziness” as a “nominative dependent clause” (p.

65). A cursory Google search for the term “nominative dependent clause” delivers only one

match: Lutz's previous handbook on grammar.
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In it, Lutz defines a “nominative dependent clause” as a noun clause (dependent) that

functions as a direct object (Lutz & Stevenson, 2010, p. 72).

The coinage appears redoubtable.

It’s not that the phrase is unreasonable (it isn’t)—or even that it’s nonstandard (it is)—but

that it takes liberties with the terminology, the original vocabulary, in such a way that the reader

gets more tangled in the new than in the old.

Given, the sentence itself is a disaster:

“She knows that if a person is on the street that it’s not necessarily due to laziness.”

“She” is the subject; “that…laziness,” a noun clause, serves as the direct object of the

transitive verb “knows.” (The misplaced adverbial clause in the middle is of no importance here.)

This explains the words “dependent clause.” But Lutz’s inclusion of the word “nominative” is

puzzling. In this construction, “nominative” should refer to a case (noun, pronoun, adjective) that

functions as the subject of a verb, or something equal to the subject, neither of which is the case

here. The only thing I can think of is that the nominative pronoun “it” is part of the noun phrase.

Perhaps he’s on to something too advanced for me .... Either way, Lutz’s coinage seems

flamboyant, insincere. Why not call it what it is? A direct-object noun clause.

Most of the time, though, his advice in the book is spot on: “If your verb choice bothers

you even a little, you can expect it will bother at least some readers a lot” (p. 8). That’s the kind

of sentence that thrusts into memory!
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THE GOTHAM GRAMMARIAN

What else is left to say?

That Gotham is divided into seven sections, each of which takes its title from either a pun

(Counter-errorist Measures, Punctuational Punctilio) or a thematic marker (Verbal Agreements,

Placement Services). That the sections are composed of short chapters, 95 in total. That this is

not the book for someone looking to find the answers to the English language. That the thrill of

Gotham Grammarian is that it reveals the secrets of a wordsmith.

What else?

That reviews of the book are nowhere to be found? That there’s an apple on the cover and

a banana peel on the rear? That reading it is like prodding hair from a book with a toothpick?
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BIBLIOGRAPHY (APA)

Butler, B. (2013). Windows that lead to more windows: An interview with Gary Lutz.”
VICE. Retrieved from http://www.vice.com/read/windows-that-lead-to-more-windows
-an-interview-with-gary-lutz.
Kolln, M & Hancock, C. The story of English grammar in United States schools. English
Teaching: Practice and Critique Vol. 4(3), pp. 11-31.
Lorentzen, C. (2015, Winter). The Art of Editing No. 2. The Paris Review (215).
Lutz, G. (2015). The Gotham Grammarian. New York, NY: Calamari Archive.
(2009, January). The Sentence is a Lonely Place. The Believer.
Lutz, G. & Stevenson, D. (2010). Grammar Desk Reference: The Definitive Source for Clear
and Correct Writing. Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books.
Lorentzen, C. (December 5, 2015). Gordon Lish: ‘Had I not revised Carver, would he be
paid the attention given him? Baloney!" The Guardian.
Taylor, J. (2006). An Interview with Gary Lutz. Retrieved from Bookslut:
http://www.bookslut.com/features/2006_07_009366.php

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