National (omigod) Grammar Day
Nathan Bierma has sounded the warning, in his Chicago Tribune
column on language today
next Tuesday, March 4, is National Grammar Day. Bierma writes
that he won't be joining
the witch hunt of the Society for the
Promotion of Good Grammar (which goes by the unappetizing acronym of
SPOGG), which is sponsoring National Grammar Day as a chance to flag
any violation of standard English usage
[AMZ: or what it believes to be
standard English usage] in any situation.
"If you see a sign with a catastrophic apostrophe, send a kind note to
the storekeeper," urges SPOGG at
"If your local newscaster says 'Between you and I,' set him straight with a
friendly e-mail." Such corrections are seldom friendly, welcome or necessary.
They are usually self-righteous, irritating and misinformed.
The policewoman behind National Grammar Day and SPOGG is Martha
Brockenbrough, who serves as grammar guru for Microsoft's Encarta Web site
(encarta.msn.com), where she writes a column
called "Grumpy Martha's Guide to Grammar and Usage."
So, yes, it's just about as annoying as it could be. In her
column, Brockenbrough even takes Elvis Presley to task for singing "all
shook up" instead of "all shaken up". I'm not making this up.
The NGD site issues its overheated manifesto:
We owe much to our mother tongue. It is
through speech and writing that we understand each other and can attend
to our needs and differences. If we don't respect and honor the rules
of English, we lose our ability to communicate clearly and well. In
short, we invite mayhem, misery, madness, and inevitably even more bad
things that start with letters other than M.
I'll pass over the only-too-familiar themes of threat and decline, to
comment on three things.
The first is the assumption that non-standard variants are unclear and
therefore impede communication. This proposition is mostly just
taken for granted, without any kind of defense -- in what way is
"between you and I" less clear than "between you and me"? in what
way is "all shook up" less clear than "all shaken up"? they're
non-standard, certainly, but LESS CLEAR
? -- and the
occasional explanations of how particular non-standard usages are
unclear don't survive scrutiny. Instead, it's just an article of
faith that non-standard variants (and conversational, informal, and
innovative variants, and variants restricted to certain geographic
regions or social groups) are unclear, vague, sloppy, or lazy; the
written, formal, established, generally used standard variants are
taken to be intrinsically superior, and everything that deviates from
them to be intrinsically debased to some degree. I have yet to
see actual arguments in favor of this idea, and it has always struck me
as deeply mean-spirited. After all, you can point out that some
variant is standard (generally used by the educated middle class) and
an alternative non-standard without demonizing the non-standard variant.
The second is the very odd view of "communication", in which respecting
and honoring "the rules of English" is what permits people to convey
meaning to others. This is a travesty of what happens when people
use language. Instead, writers and speakers work to adjust what
they say for their audience, and (most important in this context)
readers and listeners work to gauge the intentions of their
interlocutors. It's a complex collaboration, in which all the
participants have to deal constantly with linguistic and cultural
differences, with a good bit of indeterminacy and a certain number of
inevitable misfires, with differences in knowledge, assumptions, and
goals, and so on.
Finally, a point that has come up in informal discussions at Stanford
about the regulation of language. Paul Kiparsky has noted on
several occasions that while in some European countries the prescribing
of language forms for certain public purposes is the job of official
bodies, which normally include language scholars (as well as literary
figures), this sort of regulation has been PRIVATIZED
in English-speaking countries: it's managed by commercial publishers,
newspaper and magazine editors, and a whole industry of free-lance
advisers, only a few of whom know much about either the nature of
language or the structure and history of English. Such an
arrangement resonates with American free-enterprise ideals and also
with the widespread American disdain for "experts" and
In any case, one result of this arrangement is that there's essentially
no one to speak with any authority for rational reform, no one to
accord some sort of official status to variants. Instead, all
sorts of proscriptions live on in the marketplace of ideas --
proscriptions against stranded prepositions, split infinitives,
sentences beginning with coordinating conjunctions, "singular they
", and many more we've
discussed here, endlessly -- even when the "high-end" advice literature
generally admits them. What we get is people on the Microsoft
Encarta website shrieking for the public shaming of linguistic
miscreants, and a lot of peevish ranting all over the place.
It's no good maintaining that your stranded prepositions are impeccable
say they are -- after all,
these books were written by LINGUISTS
, what do they
know about correctness? -- or because some advice manuals say they are;
someone will be there to point you to their high school English teacher
and eight sites on the web, all saying that preposition at end is just
flat wrong. It's no good declaring that you you generally use
prescribed variants in certain formal contexts but reserve the right to
use other variants elsewhere; someone will be there to tell you that
what's right is right, in all contexts and at all times.
Kiparsky's point is one that at first sight seems paradoxical: an
official regulatory body, properly constituted, can damp down the
ugliness of privatized (and decentralized) prescription, by providing
an authority everyone can appeal to, and by making clear the contexts
in which its prescriptions are supposed to apply.
I know, that's the sort of thing a Finn would think of. It's so
Meanwhile, I'm ignoring the nastiness of National Grammar Day, in favor
of doing research on varieties of English and how their grammars work.
Posted by Arnold Zwicky at February 26, 2008 07:45 PM