February 26, 2008

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 nationalgrammarday.com. "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 "intellectuals". 

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 because MWDEU and CGEL 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 not American.

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