Figures of speech – let me design my own rules

Paul Epp

Paul Epp

I hate grammar. I really do. Just the mention of the word subjunctive puts me into a state of despair. I don’t want to know which is the predicate and which is the participle. Leave me alone.

It is not that I am averse to the use of words and especially the effective use of them. That’s how I make my living, after all. I teach, which depends on elucidation. And I write, as I am proving right now. I even use big words when the mood strikes me, and sometimes more than I need to.

I use words to achieve a result. I want to communicate. And, to my way of thinking, if communication is achieved (if I am understood), then all is good. Job done. I don’t need to know if there has been anything intransitive taking place. I’ll bend all the rules and even break them, if that helps me to my objective. And why not? I focus on the ends, not the means, which seems like the most intelligent approach, however much spellcheck disagrees with me.

I may be wrong. But I’ve finally come to the conclusion that I cannot be both a designer and a grammarian. Especially not at the same time. I cannot be true to my creative nature and also be obedient to someone else’s pedantic rules.

Being a creative designer depends on the presumption that anything is possible. Of course it’s not. But there must exist a state when this disbelief is suspended, temporarily and the mind is in a world without constraints. It can run and tumble without any inhibition, as elastic and unfettered as an adolescent gymnast. How can you look for that undiscovered treasure if you are always wondering if you are doing things in the proper way? The key question is “What if?”, not “Is this right?”. The time will come when the ideas are judged and the harshness of reality is felt. But we need to postpone that if we have achievement as our intention.

When I was in school, I endured the irony of getting the top marks in class for composition and the worst marks for grammar. It was not that my grammar was wrong. I just wouldn’t and couldn’t explain why it was right. Why should I? It worked, didn’t it?

I learned my use of language, as we all do, by listening and imitating. At a certain point, I became brave enough to speak my mind, putting words together in a way that I thought would work. I learned by doing. Trial-and-error and the pain of the error reformed my ways. Since those early days of learning my first language I have endeavoured to learn others. I commenced in the same way: listening and imitating. But then there comes a point, if one is taking formal instruction, when the lessons turn to grammar. Future perfect progressive? Spare me. I’m outa here. I can’t do it. I just want to communicate, and even if I don’t know when it’s perfectly correct, or not, if the foreign waiter brings me my beer when I ask for it, then I’m OK with that. It worked.

There is procedure and there is accomplishment. They are both important but they require a different focus. I have no doubt which is most important to me, or any other designer. I’m glad that there are people that focus on procedure. They are the ones I turn to when the Canada Revenue Agency is after me. It’s not that I don’t care about right or wrong, it’s just that I want to be left alone to figure out my own way of getting there. My own unique way to my own unique conclusion. If I don’t do that, there is virtually no chance that I will fulfill my creative destiny and be socially valuable to the extent of my abilities. I have to keep my eye on the right ball (for me) and it’s not the one labelled grammar.

I respect order and structure and like all of us, I depend on them. But I find them through immersion and paying attention and in this way, I too find the pattern. This way of doing things has given me the resources to achieve results that another path wouldn’t have. I may have left a few modifiers dangling in my wake, but I can live with that, because I’ve gotten to where I wanted to go.

Paul Epp is professor at OCAD University and chair of its Industrial Design Department.

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