14 September 2009


by Cedric Justice

Writing has become a deep and common part of my life.  I do it for fun, I do it for work, I do it on my phone to communicate with friends.  And language has been a passion of mine since my freshman year of college.

It is almost an unlikely turn of events that made me a writer (as one of many identities we all have).  And normally, I wouldn't call myself a writer because I'm not paid for it in a typical I-write-novels-and-drink-too-much-because-I'm-depressive way.  (By the way, I'm a big fan of the hyphen.)  But when I stand back and look at it, I am indeed a writer.

I do data analysis and energy efficiency during my day job.  This means that I sit in an office and have a computer in front of me all day.  Much of my job is numerical in nature, sure, but you'd be surprised how much reading and writing an analyst like me would do.  From research on what the newest greenhouse gas laws may be to writing the results of a demand-side air-conditioner control project, I spend much of my day immersed in figures and text. 

I swim, breathe, and eat text—figuratively speaking, of course (literally would mean I am eating the newspaper or Alphabet Soup: I strongly recommend that you all stop misusing the term).

When I was young, though (here's that turn of events I was talking about...) I found myself to be an avid reader.  Sure, there were plenty of big words I didn't understand, but I had a lot of positive reinforcement when it came to the reading game.  I had a Speak and Read (Texas Instruments: tools for nerdy children), which was like a Speak and Spell but was for reading.  I also had those 33.33 RPM Disney records where you read along with Baloo and the kid in the Jungle book.

At first, I was just concerned with punctuation.  I still remember using a pen and drawing a line at each comma, period, apostrophe, or exclamation point.  Later, as I began to understand these things, I was annoyed that I messed up the readability of these books. I have issues to this day about writing in books (an many would say, I have an obsession with punctuation as well).

I think I started to understand text sooner than I could even process the audio signal.  I talked like a normal kid and all, but much of my utterances were bigger, cognitive blocks: Idon'know (the T was silent) was a concept, not a subject, negator, verb.  Yet in text, I was finding my way..

As I progressed through school, I was an advanced reader.  But my comprehension was still sort of low.  I may have devoured books, but my memory couldn't really keep up with it all.  The symbols on the page: those made sense.  I could make sense of them, make concepts come alive.  But I'm not a visual learner, so I don't really get too many pictures in my head when I read: the pictures are nebulous, out of focus, and blurry at best.

I remember being frustrated with English class in 7th grade.  They were trying to impose a grammar on all of this stuff that I was familiar with.  I knew how words worked: I could piece them together.  But this: this was too complicated.

Further back, I still remember in first and second grade learning how the apostrophe worked and what its (no apostrophe there!) function was.  To this day, it frustrates me that so many do not understand this simple device.  And it isn't like it is out of the way on the keyboard.  Just move your right pinky over one slot.  '  .  See, right there, you can do it too.  '  .  Now, isn't that easy?  Yes, people, Im isn't a word, and neither is dontCant means dialect; it does not mean cannot.  But I digress, as I usually do in my writings.

Let's fast forward a bit to where I first started to become the grammarnazi or snappy verbal dresser that I am today.

Throughout the epochs of a school years, we continue to grow as intelligent beings (except the football players, of course) and become more and more aware of our surroundings and self.  I was 15, and sat in on my first day of Spanish class.  Sure, I had started a year late, but that should be fine... I'm a smart kid.

"¿Como estas?"

Oh, this will not do.

Eventually, though, I was able to decode it.  I had learned the numbers in Spanish with my friend when I was 8 from his nanny.  I could do this too. 

Spanish opened my eyes and ears to grammar.  It was much like when I took a vacation to Australia or Japan: being the fish out of your normal pond allows you to really see all the assumptions you were making.  In 7th grade, my teacher was trying to tell me about the algae that I've been breathing my whole life.  I was totally unaware of it.  But introduce me to driving on the left (pink algae in my world) and mackerel over rice at a subway station? You've caught my attention.

te llamas?" bugged the hell out of me.  It wasn't until second year that the reflexive constructions were illuminated.  And now, I understand how to use a reflexive myself.  And, yes, it does bug me when people say "He and myself went to the mall".  (This mistake invariable hovers around the concept of a mall 82% of the time.)  (Yes, that was a joke.  Keep up.)

I somehow ended high school in fourth-year Spanish.  I guess I caught on.  And then, my language-learning went on hiatus so I could retrain the analytical side of my brain for a while.

I entered college as a computer engineer. Yes, I liked video games and I really wanted a computer.  And yes, I'm old and middle class enough that a computer wasn't a regular part of my life.  Sure, some of my richer friends had computers you could play games on, but my 8086 with no hard drive stopped being fun a long time ago.  (Screw you 3.5" floppies and DOS!)  So, I managed to slog my way through a couple years of computer programming.  C, FORTRAN, C++.  It was all so wonderfully logical.  Unlike with human language, it was incredibly regular: no irregular verbs here, no good/better/best exceptions, no am/are/is, nothing.  Clean, simple.

And drop-dead fucking boring.  After the third term, we stopped learning new languages.

Again, I say, this will not do.

Not to mention, I just wasn't very good at it.  My calculus and physics classes were going splendidly (I've always been decent at math), but these coding classes were killing me.  Hundreds of hours investing in these programs (that didn't do anything neat, by the way) and I'd still get a C or a B.  This is an affront to my identity as a Straight-A Student as well [stomp!].  By my third term of my first year, I had to take a fun class.  And for some reason, it was just very clear to me that Intro to Linguistics would be that class.

The class changed my life. And eventually my major.  And the way I write, interpret language, and learn.

The thing about Linguistics is it isn't what most think it is.  Linguistics is the scientific study of language.  It is the blue, pink, and purple algae of every pond known to man.  And I was going to study it.

This led to me learning Chinese my senior year of college.  But in order to graduate (I just changed my major from computer science to linguistics, which was my minor for the previous two years), all the science classes I took were moot (not mute, people).  I had to finish a 203 class in language to graduate. I also had to have one year of a non-Indo-European language.  That means that Spanish, German, Hindi, French all are out of the 1 year game.

Well fuck.

The only way to pull this off would be to take 200-level Spanish and 100-level Chinese together.  Chinese 5 days a week, Spanish 2 days a week.  And on Tues and Thurs, I would run from my 9-10 Chinese class to my 10-12 Spanish class.

It isn't as bad or as confusing as you think.  It ended up being just fine.  你好朋友. ¿Qué pasa, amigo?  See?  Easy.

As I learned more an more about language, though, my writing improved.  My computer coding classes made my grammar and spelling bulletproof (you try putting grammar through a computer processor and compiler that cares whether something is capitalised or not; misspellings are not an option in C!) and my linguistics training immersed me in the construction and deconstruction of a verb phrase, I was ready for the blogging revolution to hit once I was gainfully employed two years later.

That's right, Livejournal, you changed my life.

In 2001, I got my Livejournal account.  And from then on, I've been writing in it nearly daily.  Technologies have improved, and so has our political situation, but for the next 8 years, I've become absolutely addicted to exposing fear tactics, commenting on politics, and otherwise networking socially. (By the way, 8 years ago today was an event that lived in infamy: I got kicked out of Mt. Rushmore Park.  Yeah, that's right, I was that self-absorbed... read it for yourself.)

Once in a while, I'll be inspired to write a thoughtful, well-written, poetic piece about the art of riding a cycle to work when crackheads cut you off on a tricycle, but most of the time, I scour the news and current events, blather on about data or energy, or, up until a few months ago, write a steaming anger-ball about what a fucking idiot Bush was.

I'm over it now.  And it all evolves.  And, yes, I still adhere to commonly agreed-upon syntax rules (because, yes, I do subscribe to the Grammar Girl podcast thankyouverymuch) because I find that it is fully engrained in me at this point.

I've come a long way from drawing lines from commas, haven't I?  I actually know what I'm doing now.  And I do it regularly, and it is just a part of my life, social networking or not...

And shit, I even get paid for it.


  1. I learned French and now I can't speak either language well.

  2. I don't know what role being a visual learner plays in the education of language, but I am.

    I had a friend once who associated a picture with every word she knew like she'd picture the word "rainbow" as being rainbow colored.

    Personally, I think of words more as mapped out through three dimensional Venn diagrams based on their logical connections, but that's probably why I studied Philosophy rather than language.

    Nice metawriting ;)

  3. I taught English in China for a while and they could write English far better than they could speak it. For some reason the written word is so much easier than the spoken word.

    I learned Japanese for a time and then I kept saying English words wrong when I tried to read them out loud. Like 'kite' became 'keete'. Man, it was annoying.

    I'd certainly agree with you about the apostrophe annoyance.

  4. Ugh, I missed the capital B on Jungle Book and a D at the end of an 'and'. [shame]

  5. @Morgan: Where did you teach?

    I also found that when I learned another language, words I was familiar with started to look funny. Instead of having a one-to-one relationship, they suddenly had a couple.

    I'm currently learning Hindi: 'are' is pronounced more like array than are. I just find that I have to switch modes and keep it consistent. And maybe that's why it bugs me so much when people screw it up: I know too many languages and if they're not consistent, I can't auto-detect language (a la Word) very well.

    On another (geeky) note: this post is rendering twice for me. I'm using Firefox 3.5.3

  6. Well, I'll fix it for you :). Thanks for the article. If you have anything else on writing or the creative process. Let me know, I'll post it.

    I'd still love something of a rant on people who use their children as their profile pictures.

  7. I'm using firefox, too. I also get my wall posts on facebook appearing twice. Ack!!!!!

  8. The posts show up twice for me as well, but it's all good. =)

    I know exactly how you feel about the languages, it's hard to keep to one language when you know so many, it's too easy to slip up. It's even worse in Chinese, when the same word means several different things, depending on what inflection you make.

    I taught in Shenyang, China for a company called Aston English. It was quite rewarding!