Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Happy National Grammar Day

OK, the already much-maligned National Grammar Day is upon us.

I signed up early as a participating blog, not to be a scold, but because I thought it was actually useful to have a day to think, even for a minute, about the way we put words together to create meaning.

And that's what today should be about. It should not be about hunting down and correcting every misuse of lay and lie or none is/was or misplaced apostrophes because, frankly, that's not what grammar is.

At the risk of repetition, grammar is really the way we put words (or symbols, in some cases) together to create meaning. There are numerous grammars with numerous rules. Any rules, such as they are, really should be there to eliminate as much confusion and murkiness as possible. Beyond that, they serve too often as mere shibboleths.

So the day probably should be called National Grammars Day. If that seems objectionable or too obsequious, then let's call it what it is, National Standard Written English Grammar Day.

And that's fine (although it probably wouldn't fit on the button). It's still the way, in this country, that we primarily communicate -- institutionally. There is nothing particularly wrong with it; it just is. When we communicate interpersonally, we use a slightly different grammar, one often augmented by nonverbal communication.

But it should not be the national day of scold, because, frankly, too many people lump too much under the "grammar" banner:

-- Punctuation. It's useful to clarify, or sometimes shape, meaning. It works hand in hand with grammar to do that. But it's not really grammar.
-- Usage and style: Nor are these grammar. Is it none/is or none/are? Sorry, not grammar. At least not initially. Whether "none" is treated as a singular or plural is a style decision. It may be affected by your view of how the word descended from Middle English. But it's a pretty arbitrary, if informed, decision. Once you have decided, then pairing it with a singular or plural verb is a grammatical construct. But don't confuse the two.
-- Spelling? Nope.

It's unfortunate that the woman who assembled the idea chooses to label herself Grumpy Martha as she dishes out her advice, much of it useful if considered in context. And it's unfortunate that such things too often are reduced to, essentially, cliches, such as the "worst grammar" award to Columbia based on a picture of a misspelled tombstone (see above about what grammar isn't), although, I'll admit that is a pretty fun picture.

(And if you look closely at the purported comment from the person who sent it in, there is an opportunity for the traditionalists to "scold." Resist it. It's not grammar but usage.)

We're already neurotic and on edge enough about the subject, thanks to teachers who either turned it into an exercise in hypercorrectivenss or who failed to really teach it at all (that links to the PDF of an excellent article by Gerald Grow on the subject). I see the products of both ends in my editing classes, and it's easy to go too far on either side; I often find myself doing it. Unfortunately, unlike some other subjects, language does not always accommodate itself to a 2+2=4 solution.

So on this day to celebrate "good" grammar, let's simply stop and take stock of what it is, or should be -- and what it isn't --and ask a simple question: Am I making myself as clear as I can to those with whom I am communicating? And we might ask what some of the conventions are and why they do or don't help us communicate.

But let's resist the temptation to scold.

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At 3/4/08, 12:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The link to the Gerald Grow article doesn't seem to be working. Sniffle...

At 3/4/08, 1:21 PM, Blogger Doug said...

Ooops. Sorry about that. It should be working now.

At 3/4/08, 1:21 PM, Blogger Doug said...

In case there is a problem with the PDF, the ASJMC Insights general archive page is
and from there you can get to numerous back issues.


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