How Grammar Is Like Dining At A Nice Restaurant

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 14.472% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

I wore a patched Ronnie James Dio jean jacket that featured a very large image of a demon hurling a priest into a lake of fire.  My hair was long and uncombed, and my gum-chewing date had spray-on 80s hair, fuck-me pumps, and a jacket more obscene than mine.
We had stumbled, accidentally, into one of the most expensive restaurants in New York City.
The waiters and patrons alike wore tuxedos.  The tablecloths were of fine linen, the menus engraved.  Bowls of sherbet were brought to the patrons between courses to cleanse the palate, and it was the first time in my life I might have been exposed to the phrase “amuse-bouche.”
My uncle, who was wearing his standard accountant’s outfit of blue jeans and a button-down workshirt, looked at the maitre’d. We’d been walking for hours, propelled by our picky eating habits; no restaurant seemed good enough.  And now we were exhausted, far from home, and felt wildly out of place in this exquisite dining emporium.  But even at sixteen, I did like good food, and this looked good.
The Maitre’d, God bless him, didn’t blink.  “Do you have reservations?” he asked.
My Uncle, God bless him, didn’t blink either.  “No.  Have you a table for three?”
And, unbelievably, they sat us down.
The meal was the first truly great meal I’d ever had in my life, but alas, I don’t remember the food – I remember the sherbet, I remember the way the waiter came to scrape the crumbs off the table between courses, and I remember the bill being a staggering $350, which was pretty damned pricey today, let alone 1986.
And I remember the way they sat us very far at the back, so we wouldn’t upset the other customers.
The thing is, a quality restaurant won’t judge you by your appearance.  They’ll sit you down, bring you food, and let your manners decide the course of the evening.  I think my uncle’s polite request, his fearlessness in the face of snooty, saved that evening and made it magical.  That was the secret signal to the maitre’d that “Yes, despite our slovenly appearance, we do respect this place, and will appreciate it.”
So they treated us well.
And while it was very kind of the restaurant to seat us, I also recognize that a restaurant owner would have been right to judge us.  When we showed up to a place like that, where the dress of the day was clearly above our pay grade, we were signalling a potential disrespect.  Those heavy metal jackets and torn jeans could have just as easily been a signal for, “We don’t know what this place is like, and we don’t care, we’re going to do as we please.”  Because a good restaurant wants you to care about the food, to delight in the experience, to be invested in the group experience of fine dining where everyone has a good time – and if you’re going to show up to burp Pabst Blue Ribbon and laugh at the waiters’ penguin suits, then you’re fucking it up for everyone.
Dress matters.  It’s what makes people comfortable.  In the same way that showing up to your local dive bar in tuxedos is a signal that these people don’t get what you’re trying to do, it sets people on guard, makes them look at you askance, makes them worry that maybe your appearance signals a deeper problem that you’re actually just completely disinvested in this.  Which is why you gotta tailor your look, to some extent, to the crowd… or risk people taking offense at smaller sleights that better-dressed people might miss.
It’d be wonderful if they could overlook your dress.  But the fact is, you’ve already said in one way, “We may not know how we’re supposed to act here to maximize everyone’s enjoyment.  Or we may not care.”  And they’re gonna be on their guard until you’ve demonstrated that you’re cool.
Likewise: grammar.
Someone emailed me this morning with bad grammar in an email, asking why his writings didn’t go over well.  And I think bad grammar in most cases is like showing up at an elegant restaurant in a demon-flinging jean jacket: right off the bat, you’re making people nervous as whether your inside’s as jumbled as your outside.  It’s hard to convince people you have brilliant thoughts to say when you’re showing a disrespect for the language immediately, and people will suspect your logic is as poorly-presented as your grammar.
This may not be fair.  It may well be that, thanks to dyslexia or some other issue, you’re like me and my Uncle Tommy stumbling into the lobby of the fine restaurant – secretly food lovers, clad in unfortunate garb, eager as any other diner here but having accidentally arrived underdressed.  And you can hope for a grand maitre’d, one as welcoming as that bold and wonderful man who let us in and treated us like royalty.
But what you’ll usually find is people skirting around the edges, skimming, not wanting to get to know you too closely because you already don’t look like you know what you’re doing.  And there are snobs who get too into dress or grammar, blowing people off for a split infinitive or the wrong shade of shoes – these people are jerks.  But that’s no excuse for not trying to match the general tone of the establishment… and on the Internet, barring places like YouTube comments, the tone is generally “Decent grammar.”
Because I love that maitre’d… but he sat us in the back, near the kitchen, away from the rest of the crowd.  Because we made the other patrons nervous.  They did not know that we shared their vision.  They could not know, until they got to know us better.  And if I could find that restaurant today, I would dress up to the nines, because why put up barriers when you don’t have to?
Which is why, I say, if you’re blogging or communicating, default to proper grammar when you can.  Grammar or bad spelling doesn’t mean you’re dumb, but holy God is it a big ugly jean jacket in a nice restaurant.


  1. Domina Kat
    Oct 15, 2013

    Great story and well woven analogy!

  2. Alexandra Lynch
    Oct 18, 2013

    Most excellently put, Ferrett. On the other place I read your writing, I frequently receive emails from people who apparently wrote them in their sleep. (Also, with only their id functioning, but that’s another problem). And they say that it is a serious application; how can it be serious, if you can’t bother to write properly? I believe I will borrow your simile and use it in my profile. (Not that it will stop them, but it will make me feel better….)

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