February 26, 2006

It's all grammar, redux

Why do many people hate grammar so much?  Possibly because (as I noted back in 2004) they think "grammar" embraces everything to do with language, so long as it's regulated, and that's an awful lot of stuff.  Back then it was punctuation that was at issue.  This time it's naming conventions, in a 2/25/06 entry "Grammar question I should know the answer to" (marked as "OT", that is, off-topic) on a message board devoted to baby care:

I am addressing envelopes. My mom's best friend is married; it is her second marriage and after divorcing her first husband, she went back to using her maiden name and kept it after marrying her current husband. So, I know her husband is "Mr. John Smith" but should she be "Mrs. Jane Jones" or "Ms. Jane Jones"? She is married, but is not really "Mrs. Jones" since her husband is "Mr. Smith", so should I use "Ms."?

I'm inviting them to a formal event, so I would really like to use salutations, not just their first and last names. TIA!

(My thanks to Elizabeth Daingerfield Zwicky for pointing me to this site.  People who replied recommended "Ms. Jane Jones and Mr. John Smith", by the way.)

Back in 2004, I reported:

To PITS, People In The Street, "grammar" embraces pretty much everything having to do with language, spoken or written, so long as it's regulated in some way: syntax, morphology, word choice, pronunciation, politeness, discourse organization, clarity and effectiveness, spelling, punctuation, capitalization, bibliographic style, whatever.

I suppose choosing the correct name form comes in the "whatever" category.  In any case, you'd expect to find the answer to the poster's question in an etiquette book, not a grammar book.

For a while, I entertained the idea that what the ordinary-language non-technical word "grammar" means to PITS is 'everything you were taught about in English class, minus the literature', but I see now that even this broad characterization is insufficient.

In a somewhat different context, it's too broad.  What I have in mind here are the many multiple-choice quizzes on grammar that you can find in magazines and on websites, for instance the "How grammatically sound are you?" on-line quiz, which I took a couple of years ago in preparation for teaching a sophomore seminar on prescriptivism, and which Bill Poser has reported on here.  I got a perfect score -- like Bill, I am, ahem, a Grammar God -- but then I did a lot of second-guessing of the test designers.

About half of the test items have nothing to do with syntax; they're about spelling, punctuation, choosing the right variant for an inflectional form of a verb (lie vs. lay), or choosing the right word (bring vs. take, shall vs. will).  The other half concern word choices that have something to do with syntax (relative who vs. that), government of case forms of pronouns, subject-verb agreement, and modifier placement (only, split infinitives).  So, on the one hand, "grammar" takes in lots of things that have little to do with the system or structure of the language, while, on the other, it's remarkably constrained.  In fact, this quiz pretty much reproduces the form and content of the "grammar" sections of multiple-choice standardized tests.

So what DO we call the domain that takes in spelling, punctuation, choice of inflectional form, word choice, syntactic usage, and actual grammar?  "Usage" is a bit too broad; in fact, usage dictionaries are reluctant to discuss more than a few common misspellings, since there are just too many of them.  "Usage and style" takes in even more.  (Some day I'm going to have to post about the very many senses of "style" that make it so hard to figure out what a book that claims to be about style in language is going to be about.)

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at February 26, 2006 02:35 PM