Grammatical Whimsy

Traveling through the time vortex… or the linguistic vortex as it were.

When you start down a new rabbit hole, investigating an unknown pocket universe, often times you discover something profound. There is some notion divined by an unheralded philosopher that rocks your world. You find this genius in the most unsuspecting places, like English Grammar Textbooks. In my quest to learn more about copyediting and writing, I have come across just such a notion.

Hobgoblins are everywhere.

41DHFqpNjkL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_“In some quarters, a peculiar hobgoblin is afoot…” When I first read this sentence in  The Copyeditor’s Handbook I assumed the author was incorporating wit and fantasy into an otherwise prosaic topic. I snickered a moment before continuing on with the minutiae of possessive nouns. It quickly passed from my mind. Then, it appeared again. Hobgoblin cavorted across the pages of my textbooks and exercises. As an outmoded word for a folklore creature, it seemed an odd contrast to the humorless jargon of ‘gerund’ and ‘perfect participle.’ Yet there it was.

According to the internet hobgoblins, in the grammatical sense, are rules “of dubious validity that were nevertheless vigorously enforced.” It’s a term coined in the book Miss Thistlebottom’s Hobgoblins which lays out not only grammar rules, but also the acceptable times to ignore them. There are plenty of moments when inanimate objects might possess something or where ‘they’ is a perfectly reasonable singular personal pronoun. At this point, I could bore you, dear reader, with endless examples of the archaic rules we were all taught to follow – but I’ll leave that for my grammatically nerdy friends to pursue on their own. Instead I turn to the broader implications.


A slightly humorous illustration of this concept is that of dessert. Traditionally dessert is a sweet course used to conclude a meal. There may be savory elements – coffee, nuts, etc – incorporated, but most people conjure sugary deliciousness with that word. My long-standing conjecture is that dessert is the ultimate test of adulthood. A person can stand firmly adult-ed when they maintain the right to eat dessert whenever they please. Ice cream for breakfast? Yes, please. Rice Krispie Treats as a lunchtime appetizer? Why not. This is a particularly meaningful test when dining with parents. If you can acknowledge their skepticism and do it anyway, then you are truly an independent agent.

Not that you would always eat dessert before a meal (or in place of a meal… whatever). The dessert-comes-after-dinner rule was created for a reason. This is what underlies the entire theory: creativity, agency, and expression result from a firm understanding of the rules coupled with a willingness to bend or break them. This is the circumstance of transformation. It is the foundation of innovation. It is also not a novel thought.

Ralph Waldo Emerson concurs with the underlying theory that “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Consistency for the sake of consistency is a kind of death for creativity. Pure adherence to rules, even those we create for ourselves, can stifle our expression. We should not be afraid to change our minds.

If you want to live your life in a creative way, as an artist, you have to not look back too much. You have to be willing to take whatever you’ve done and whoever you were and throw them away.” These words of the late, great Steve Jobs speaks similarly to our capacity to propel ourselves forward if we don’t hold ourselves back.

But there is risk in this. “We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the love and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were.” By far one of my favorite quotes, Joan Didion speaks to an important aspect of this idea. We must make a choice – but this choice must be grounded on history, or fact, or convention. When we reflect and still choose differently, that is our empowerment.

So what then of hobgoblins?

Hobgoblins play a particular role in life. They are the unquestioned norm ingrained in our lives without deeper contemplation. They are the insignificant quintessence of conformity. They provide a mechanism to give our words impact. They are the seeds of small rebellion that give rise to weirdness and individuality. We notice when hobgoblins are ignored – something feels uncertain and new. Hobgoblins are arbitrary, which should invite cogitation. We should ask why more, especially when the consequences are so stacked in our favor. Ignoring a grammar rule, changing a routine, rethinking our beliefs, all of these things are essential to our humanity. Hobgoblins are tricksters. They trick us into being more human.

I’m not sure this is exactly what my copyediting professor had in mind for my weekly reading. I suspect she was looking for a deep understanding of apostrophes and m-dashes, and less of an existential rant. You can’t always guess where inspiration comes from. I blame the hobgoblins.


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