Yoga and Grammar: The virtues of flexibility are many, but being flexible about which word to use is not one of them. As I was poring over Claire Dederer's Poser: My Life in Twenty-three Yoga Poses, the benefits, and limits, of flexibility came to mind.


Claire Dederer's Poser is first of all a memoir, and then a yoga book. It's a memoir about trying to do it right.


Dederer writes a memoir of young motherhood and her own quest for perfection, for happiness, for balance, for goodness. A gifted and successful writer, and a mother and wife in the upper middle-class Seattle area, she begins raising her daughter in a hyper-conscious Park Slope-like world of attachment parents, thoughtful consumption, and deep anxiety.


Desperately trying to be good, to do it the right way, she travels from experience to experience, to yoga and away from it, all with grace and wit. She moves from pose to pose, going ever deeper. She's the kind of girl who pores over books. And she pours herself out here, elegantly, skilfully, beautifully.


That difference between "pore" and "pour" struck me recently, when a blog reader wrote to me last week:


"I skim the political blogs but PORE over yours. (Or is that "pour"? What the h*** do pores have to do with it? BLOG POST!) These are the truly pressing issues of life."


How we all try to be good! To use the right word, not to make a mistake. As long-time readers of this blog know, I am no prescriptivist grammarian. I recognize that different contexts require different registers of speech, and that the grammar that describes how we use language is not the grammar of "should"s.


And yet that the grammar of "should"s should not be tossed out like the bath water, either.


Homophones, or words that sound alike but are spelled differently and mean different things (also called heterographs*), are not caught by spell check. "Pour" and "pore" are both spelled correctly, but one means to move liquid, assisted by gravity, and the other (as noun) refers to a natural opening in the skin, and (as verb) refers to examining closely.


Certainly, adolescents are prone to pore over their pores, for example. Interestingly, the two senses of the words stem from different roots - they are not related. There's a little interactive quiz here to check your usage, if you care to. Then you'll use them perfectly!


The quest for perfectionism in grammar can lead to pain, poor writing, anger, and pedantry. The lack of precision in word use can lead to confusion, poor writing, and ridicule. To avoid either extreme, take the middle path, the middle way that Claire Dederer found in yoga, and in life. Find out what different words mean, and use them well. Curiosity, not punishment, is the best prescription for grammar.


*Should you like knowing such things as homophone vs heterograph vs homonym, you probably like Venn diagrams. Please enjoy this illuminating Wikipedia Venn diagram, then.)


What do you pore over? Where do you seek perfection?


Ellen Scordato has 25 years' book publishing experience as an editor, copy editor, proofreader, and managing editor. She's now a partner in The Stonesong Press, a nonfiction book producer and agency. In addition to her work at Stonesong, Ellen has taught grammar, punctuation, and style at the New School for more than 12 years in the English Language Studies department and taught English as a Second Language at Cabrini Immigrant Services.

by on ‎01-26-2011 05:54 PM

I'm poor in words, today

as perfect as I would like to be 

I try, but some days

I can't win

for losing


oh, woe





by Blogger Ellen_Scordato on ‎01-26-2011 06:00 PM

thanks, Kathy!

by on ‎01-26-2011 09:37 PM

Ellen, I like what you have to say, especially about writing, and perfectionism. 

If I may quote you?

The quest for perfectionism in grammar can lead to pain, poor writing, anger, and pedantry. The lack of precision in word use can lead to confusion, poor writing, and ridicule. To avoid either extreme, take the middle path, the middle way that Claire Dederer found in yoga, and in life. Find out what different words mean, and use them well. Curiosity, not punishment, is the best prescription for grammar.


You are so right-on! There is a middle ground.  And that's where I strive to be.


I am a realist, I don't seek perfection, because I know who I am.  I will beat myself up, if that's my goal.  I will never be perfect, it doesn't really exist for anyone, actually, no matter what you are looking for.  I strive for what I want within the knowledge I have at hand, and try for the best I know how to do.  I can't hesitate to look for help when I can see there is something I am missing.  Like a kernel of corn that lies dormant, and needs to be Popped!


Writing is one of the arts I love.   I love to play!   I am learning my way, as  I read, look,  listen, and search for whatever I think fits best in my crazy head.  It doesn't mean I don't struggle.  It means I am always on the look-out for ways to lessen those struggles.


Thanks for the prescription!


by on ‎01-27-2011 11:20 AM

I had the strangest thoughts running through my head this morning, before I opened my eyes to greet the day.  I saw words, all sorts of words, in all sorts of places.  They were all anointed with personalities.  Some big!  Some small!  Some short!  Some tall!


I looked around this room, the one in my head, and saw a group of words standing in the corner of the room.  I walked over to them and introduced myself.  They were shy, little words, and didn't have much to say.  I, am, we, you, me.


I told them they were always welcome in this room.  They smiled.  I turned and looked around the room.  I saw loud words, boisterous words, full of themselves.  Preposterous, ambiguous, absurd and absorbed in themselves.


I saw laughing words, they were hilarious.  They giggled and gaggled and choked on themselves.  They spit little bits of saliva as they groped for breath and words.


I saw a small group of words next to the spiked punch bowl.  They were fowl.  They had too much to drink, and those words were starting to stick.  Four letter words could be heard.


Anyway, this is the synopsis, a smidgen of what I saw, this morning, while the sun was coming up, and before my eyes opened to greet the day.  That's it, an unedited version of visions, at play.


by Fricka on ‎01-27-2011 05:23 PM

What fun you are having with words, Kathy! I've also had  a thought about homonphonic language, in that many poems which have rhyming schemes use elements of homonyms to convey a sense of play or deeper meaning to words in the poem.

Anyway, to get back on track, I wanted to say to Ellen that I think it is very interesting that you chose to compare Yoga to Grammar. In Yoga, of course, there are the adepts who have made it a part of their life style so completely that they become teachers and mentors to others. Then there's the rest of us, who fall into different patterns of competence. For example, I can do the  Mountain Pose and the Standing Warrior position very adequately, and enjoy the process. If I try something like the Downward Dog, though, my creaky knees and problem feet cause enough pain that I no longer try to do them, knowing that my aging body simply has physical limitations which prevent me from trying those positions. I wonder, then, to carry the analogy through to language, whether some people find Homophonic language more frustrating than enjoyable. It's one thing to come up with words that sound alike for a poem that one is composing, but another to have to manage to get the right spelling of a word in a composition that's being graded for correct usage. I also wonder how people who are just learning English deal with the complication of finding out that words which are spelled the same can have similar pronunciation but different meaning(technically a Heteronym, like desert, meaning to abandon or leave, and desert, meaning an arid region).Much of our grammatical meaning comes from contextual use, and this may be beyond the beginning writer's ability, just like the Downward Dog is beyond my physical ability. However, happily for the beginner in Grammar, these rules may lead to future enlightenment and enjoyment, while I am sorry to say that I don't see an  equal parallel for me in the more demanding Yoga poses.

by Blogger Ellen_Scordato on ‎01-28-2011 10:41 AM


That's interesting - I'm fascinated with the parallel and appreciate your sharing your experience. I teach grammar and ESL and I have my 200-hour teacher training certification in yoga, though I don't currently teach--and I'm no adept at any of it!


Re: the desert and desert -- fun note: people from China and Japan have to deal with all sorts of heteronyms as the same characters can be read, and mean several different things in different contexts, too. Much ESL teaching deals with context, with register, with how things are said at different times, to different people, in different settings. You've hit on a really large part of the instruction. ESL teaching is so MUCH more than grammar and pronunciation--it's communicating a culture and a way of processing and expressing experience.


Context is everything.


With yoga, it's interesting to explore the idea that "more demanding" poses lead anywhere. The longer I practice, the more I see that achieving any sort of physical shape in the asanas is beside the point. Asana has become for me, as it has always been intended, a form of preparation for meditation -- not just limbering me up and calming my central nervous system as prep for sitting meditation, but also letting me examine my mind and emotions as I move into and out of poses.


What deeply ingrained patterns of thought does my ability or inability to do "more demanding" poses bring up? Looking at that is the enlightenment and enjoyment, more than getting my d*mn hips in the right spot in downward dog. Which I still, after 13 years practice, get adjustments on.

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