April 04, 2006

It's all grammar, one more time

Every so often -- most recently, back in February -- I comment on the fact that most people who aren't trained in linguistics think of "grammar" as embracing everything that is regulated in language, including (among other things) spelling, punctuation, pronunciation, and address terms.  But, wait, even some Ph.D.s in linguistics go this route.  For instance, the late Mary Newton Bruder, "a.k.a. The Grammar Lady", author of Much Ado About a Lot: How to Mind Your Manners in Print and in Person (reprinted under the title The Grammar Lady: How to Mind Your Grammar in Print and in Person), who earned an M.A. and a Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of Pittsburgh, taught TESOL for some years, and wrote a newspaper column on "grammar" (in a very broad sense) from which this book is derived (following in the wake of a phone hotline and a Grammar Lady website).

The jacket copy describes MNB as "a lover of language and a passionate gadfly" (she Wrote Letters, many of them, to people whose linguistic choices she objected to).  Well, her authorial persona is both perky and prickly.  Case in point:

Good grammar enhances communication.  Not only can bad grammar make it difficult for a particular sentence to be correctly interpreted, but it can also detract from the message by becoming, in itself, a distraction.  There is a restaurant where I often go in spite of its list of specials, which I can hardly stand to read since the spelling and grammar are so terrible.  A person who didn't know how good this restaurant's butterscotch pie is might not be so forgiving. (pp. 5-6)

Despite her willingness to consume damn good pie in a den of bad spelling and grammar, she's generally unaccommodating, up to the point of willful misunderstanding: to someone who is asked "Can you spell your name for me?", she suggests responding, "Yes, I can.  Would you like me to?"(p. 57), and faced with young people using high rising terminals in things like "Hi.  This is Jane Doooeeee?" (her representation of the phenomenon), she says she's tempted to ask, "Are you sure?" (p. 59)  What an annoying person!

And she pretty much steadfastly refuses to make distinctions; her examples of language gone awry include simple typos (labeled "Typo of the Weak"), ordinary misspellings, word confusions, non-standard forms and constructions, most of the usual shibboleths, and choices she believed to be too colloquial for formal (especially written) contexts (for instance, split infinitives).  They're all mistakes, and they're all offenses against "grammar manners" (p. 7).

Just how wide she casts her net can be seen from the lists of "grammar points" at the end of each chapter.  Here's the one for chapter 4 (p. 72), on language in social situations:

change in social situation
pronunciation of mauve
phatic language
"you're welcome"
range of "thank you" occasions
answering machine rules
titles + last names
addressing widows
addressing men with the same last name
names ending in s
addressing former elected officials
addressing young girls
addressing young men
mens' last names and number
women changing names
correcting others' language
wedding invitations
plural "you"
seasons' Greetings
apostrophe in name signs

Ah, she anticipates your objections.  On addressing widows (p. 68):

Someone even had the temerity to ask if this topic wasn't an etiquette question...  On one hand, this is an etiquette question, but it also involves language use and thus falls into my area of interest.

As far as I can tell, things like the conventions for composing double dactyls and knock-knock jokes don't make it into the book, but maybe that's just because she hadn't come across any inept double dactyls or ill-formed knock-knock jokes, and nobody had asked her about these forms.  (Let's listen in...  Grammar Hotline: "May I help you?" Caller: "Yes.  When my brother speaks Pig Latin, he pronounces 'stop' as 'topsay', but I say it has to be 'opstay'.  Which of us is right, Grammar Lady?")

I do wish there were some short and punchy label for all the kinds of conventions of language use (as well as labels for the many different types of these conventions), so that "grammar" wouldn't have to serve this purpose and could continue to be used by linguists for the system of regularities connecting the phonetics and semantics of a (variety of a) language.  Or maybe linguists should just give up and follow Geoff Pullum and Barbara Scholz in calling this system the "correctness conditions" for a (variety of a) language.  Though I worry about how "correctness" would be taken by non-linguists.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at April 4, 2006 02:49 PM