I‘ve always thought writing should be learned by osmosis. Like if you read enough good books you shouldn’t need to know the exact rules about dangling participles. But I’m a journalist and maybe I give off a vibe, because friends have told me they read over their text messages before they send them to me lest I tsk-tsk their grammar. Or maybe they’ve been scolded once too often by internet grammar crusaders who post exasperated blogs about the difference between “rebut” and “refute.”
So when I saw “verbs, conjugated” in a headline shared by a Facebook, I cringed. But this piece was by Alexandra Petri, the bitingly funny Washington Post columnist. I will read anything she writes, so I clicked.
“Some interpersonal verbs, conjugated by gender” ran Sept. 19, 2018, in The Washington Post, as sexual assault accusations and denials were piling up around U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. The piece is sober and cheeky at the same time, using staid grammar rules as a framework to explore the binding language we wrap around politics, gender and sex.
Petri is a Harvard alum with a background in playwriting and stand-up comedy. In 2010 she became the youngest person to ever have a regular column in The Post. She’s the author of A Field Guide to Awkward Silences.
I overrode my own tendency to awkward silences and gave her a call. I wanted to know more about her piece, whether she’s ever hounded by the Grammar Police and how she sees her columns fitting into the larger media conversation around sexual assault. (By the way, Petri talks fast. Crazy fast. Like, insanely fast. My Southern ears could barely keep up.)
The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
How did you come up with the idea to build an entire piece around conjugating verbs?
This one had been sitting in the back of my mind. It’s been a high-stakes week in terms of the Kavanaugh confirmation, but it’s also a very overdue conversation around all of these assumptions about who’s at fault and who has to be careful and who can be careless. You’ll hear people say:
‘She was drinking and she should have been more careful.’
There’s this idea women grow up with that men are this phenomenon, almost like weather, where you have to go out with an umbrella and boots because this thing is uncontrollable and beyond you. When actually it’s just built up from the individual acts of a bunch of people.
So I was trying to unpack that in some way: What are the rules undergirding this?
Did you have an officer from the Grammar Police standing over you while you wrote? Do you still have copy editors at The Post?
We do have copy editors! It’s so thrilling and lovely. Everyone should have them.
Was one of them looking over your shoulder, explaining how you conjugate verbs?
They understood what the piece was going for. When I started writing I just let the line breaks do all the work in terms of where the pauses are. I didn’t have periods in a bunch of places. So the editors went through and standardized it a little. Now it’s more like you would find in your grammar textbook, and less freeform verse.
I think sometimes the rhythm of poetic speech versus the rhythm of normal speech can help you get a point across more forcefully. So yay poetry!
You basically draw from one rule-bound world – verb conjugation – to talk about another rule-bound world, which is how we talk about sexual misconduct and assault.
Exactly right. Grammar has all of these rules that are sort of unstated and unspoken, and that gets to determine who in a sentence gets to be the subject and who gets to be the object.
There’s this wonderful passage in the play The Invention of Love where Tom Stoppard attributes a passage to A.E. Housman where he’s like, I love Latin because in a sentence it doesn’t matter what order you put the words in, you know who’s the dog and who is loved and who is doing what to whom just by virtue of the way the endings work. Whereas in English we have to come up with different ways of getting that idea across. A lot of that is the order you put the words in.
Were all the phrases you used in your piece taken from published reports about Kavanaugh’s accusers and defenders?
I’d seen a lot of them in headlines. The first couple were from accounts of what happened. Then you get into the comments where people will be like, ‘She was setting herself up for this’ or “She should have been careful.’
It seems like many of your columns use a specific construction or conceit to get your point across, as opposed to a traditional column where you just say, ‘Here’s what I think about what happened today on the internet.’ How do you come up with those frameworks?
The things that happen demand them on their own. If you want someone who’s a shoe-leather reporter doing excellent journalism, there are people doing that. But sometimes you want someone to just stare at the screen and yell at it with you.
We’ve sort of run out of the usual ways of writing about things. How do you try and make it new every time, instead of being like, ‘It’s Tuesday. What fresh hell is upon us?’ By using the tools of a dramatic structure, sometimes you can say more things than you would within a traditional format. … By being a little less precise, you can sometimes get at the reality of a thing better.
It’s almost the opposite of the way a regular reporter would approach a story.
A reporter would have to say, ‘Here’s what happened exactly.’ As a columnist, I get to draw something from it and hopefully connect the dots. But if it weren’t for the reporters putting the dots there, I couldn’t do that. There are so many people doing such fantastic reporting. But with something like the Kavanaugh stuff, these are such hard stories to tell, you’ve got to try every possible way to tell them.
It seems like everything was simpler a few years ago. I don’t know if that’s true or not.
I always wonder that. Was everything exactly the same and I just had the luxury of not noticing? Anyway, we’re all here now.
Have editors ever shut down a piece that was so out there they were not willing to go with you on that particular journey?
There are some creatures who lay one egg every two years and they work really hard on that egg, versus others that produce 600 smaller eggs and are like, ‘I hope some of you survive.’ I tend to be more of that second category. So if something’s not working, I’ll think, well the basic thing that I want to say remains – now how do I say it in a different way?
Do you have good exchanges with your readers?
Sometimes I get a really mean reader email and it’s just great. But what’s sad is I’ve gotten really nice emails and I haven’t responded because my inbox is a garbage fire. But then there are people who write a mean thing that’s slightly misspelled and I always respond because that’s how my brain works.
(Here she offers a dramatic reading of her favorite reader email:)
Everything about it was perfect. So much going on there. That was a cherished reader email.
What are you working on now that excites you?
I feel like my agent will stab me if I don’t say I’m working on a book. She’s like, ‘Please actually work on a book.’ So yes, I’m very much working on a book. Definitely not procrastinating on it at all.
What’s the book about?
Originally it was going to be a civics textbook, but now I think it’s just going to be dystopian horror. Maybe it could be the same thing.
That seems very ‘now.’
Just average those two out, and that’s what the book will be.
Any writing advice for us?
The problem these days is that there’s not a scarcity of material, it’s that there is so much stuff coming all of the time, and you’re swimming upstream against it constantly, and trying to figure out what is worth pouring more oil onto – as this metaphor unravels beneath me – and what to watch float down the stream.
The number of drafts in my writing box are considerable. Things just get blown away all the time. But it’s depressing, the things that tend to be perennials these days. Before it was like once a year we’ll have pumpkin spice lattes. Now multiple times a year there will be a mass shooting. This is not what I’d like to be evergreen.
People are always like, it must be a great gift that you have wild stuff happening. Absolutely not. This is a horrible curse. There’s only so many ways to say a person is orange.