Mighty Red Pen

February 27, 2008

Go forth and grammarfy!

Filed under: Word wars — mighty red pen @ 9:01 pm
Tags: , , , ,

There’s a bit of an exciting kerfuffle that’s erupted regarding National Grammar Day, which is next Tuesday, March 4.

A few weeks back, over at You Don’t Say, the level-headed John McIntyre described his apprehension about the day:

Shall we see people who say “between you and I” clapped into stocks in the public square? Will insurgents sweep through markets, tearing down signs announcing TOMATO’S and CUKE’S? . . . Or will the participants take a more civilized and informed approach? Perhaps to sit down with that high school English teacher who forbade splitting infinitives or ending sentences with prepositions, explaining gently that there is nothing wrong with either in English.

This week, Jan Freeman took up the case in her column in the Boston Globe, as did Nathan Bierma at the Chicago Tribune. Over on Language Log, they seem to be taking the whole thing quite seriously, with two unflattering posts devoted to making fun of the day and peppered with gratuitous pot shots.

And it takes my mind off thinking about the grammar loonies — the whining pedants who imagine that all informal usage should be made formal, and no infinitives must ever be split, and everybody who uses non-standard American dialects in any context needs to straighten up and fly right. (All right, all right, fly correctly.)

Meanwhile, back at SPOGG, National Grammar Day founder Martha Brockenbrough replies:

The blog Language Log cites Bierma without checking any of his source material and concludes that we are grammar loonies. They have also concluded National Grammar Day is a nasty holiday. So to them, we say perhaps a grammartini will make you less crabby. We have posted a recipe right here. We might also recommend the high-fiber turkey chili. It might dislodge whatever’s stopping up your colons.

MRP for one is perplexed by how this situation has evolved. I’m not a linguist, but I read Language Log and other linguistics blogs because they are interesting, instructive, and entertaining. I read SPOGG and related blogs because they are interesting, instructive, and entertaining. Hmm.

The debate has focused on some of Bierma’s less flattering descriptions (for example, National Grammar Day is a “witch hunt”), but he does make a couple of good points. For instance:

Sometimes it is best to follow the conventions of standard written English, as quirky, arbitrary and illogical as they often are (explain to me why “aren’t I?” is considered grammatically correct?).

But most of the time — when we’re among friends, family, or anyone we feel comfortable with — we should simply let our hair down and allow our unpolished emissions of language to burst out of us in all their untidy splendor.

MRP is proud to be a National Grammar Day participating blog. As such, I intend to embrace the spirit of the day, which to me is to celebrate the joy and complexity of language, and our shared interest in it.

And hand me my grammartini, please. Shaken, not stirred.



  1. When I was in high school, we had “grammar days” in English classes. On those days, we set aside our reading and slogged through the diagramming of sentences and the memorization of arcane and somewhat silly rules. There was no delight in those days. There was no fun. No love of the language. No playfulness. No humor. No appreciation of the beauty of the language’s trickster soul.

    When I grew up, I discovered that I had been cheated on grammar days and that language was something about which I could be passionate. I learned to love the quirkiness of English, it’s flexibility, and its joyful pirating of other languages.

    To those who hate National Grammar Day, I gently and lovingly invite you to grow up. Grammar need not hurt.

    Comment by David — February 28, 2008 @ 10:29 am | Reply

  2. Grammar-fight!

    Comment by Gez — February 28, 2008 @ 11:04 am | Reply

  3. I’m sort of halfway on Language Log’s side. And I love grammar.

    And am I the only one who’s mildly bothered that the logo for National Grammar Day is about SPELLING, not grammar?

    It just seems like, if you’re going to be snarky about language, you should be right.

    Maybe what we need to be sure to do is talk only about those times when people get grammar right, and–as well-mannered ladies do when someone farts–never even mention the times when people do it wrong.

    (David, I *loved* the days we diagrammed sentences!)

    Comment by TootsNYC — February 28, 2008 @ 2:36 pm | Reply

  4. @TootsNYC I’ve learned to love diagramming sentences. My problem with it was much more the dour spirit with which it was taught than the thing itself.

    Comment by David — February 28, 2008 @ 3:23 pm | Reply

  5. TootsNYC, I’m giggling about the well-mannered old ladies . . .

    I’m not in total disagreement with what Lang Log, Bierma, etc., have said. I do think that there are plenty of prescriptivists out there who are pedantic and humorless in their relentless pursuit of the rules. I find those blogs boring and annoying, too.

    But there are a lot of people blogging who are just trying to have a good time with language, and I do think it’s unfair that these linguists (first at Language Log and now I’m seeing it over at Languagehat as well) are lumping everyone who cares about grammar into one big category and, in the process, being just as pedantic and humorless as the peevologists they are lashing out against.

    Comment by mightyredpen — February 28, 2008 @ 9:11 pm | Reply

  6. Peevologists.

    I like it!

    Comment by David — February 29, 2008 @ 10:44 am | Reply

  7. I think Bierma’s article was great and I agree whole-heartedly. Some of the reactionary rhetoric written in response really rubs me the wrong way. (How’s that for alliteration?).

    MRP, you know how I feel about the militant “usage” protagonists. Just because a localised percentage of a speaking population has been making the same mistake for 50 years, it doesn’t mean that mistake should be globally accepted. The continued non-standard usage I can live with; the lack of awareness that this usage is non-standard or the insistence that everyone else use it in the same context, I cannot.

    The argument that ease of communication is the only importance is illogical at best. If we have a population of Malaprops, each thinking that the same word means different things, how is communication eased?

    Ooh, I got all flustered then. I’d better go have a lie down.

    Comment by Gez — February 29, 2008 @ 11:14 am | Reply

  8. There’s no evidence that everyone is going to start using words differently they’re not told to use them a certain way. There was no such thing as English prescriptive grammar before the 18th century, and we still wrote great literature. Most languages have no dictionaries, usage books, or prescriptivists, and communication still happens.

    The reason linguists can get upset at prescriptivists is because prescriptivists sometimes assert that something is right or wrong without considering the evidence. Advice on usage issues can be useful. But if you’re going to talk about what right and wrong in language, then you need to have all the facts.

    Comment by John — March 1, 2008 @ 12:12 am | Reply

  9. John, I appreciate your perspective and thanks for the link. I totally agree that some prescriptivists can be overbearing and reactionary without considering that there are different ways of looking at any given issue. In general, I find that attitude off-putting and unhelpful.

    However, in my daily life as an editor, it’s often part of my job to just say “that’s the rule and we have to live with it.” Because we want our publications to have consistency of voice and style it’s necessary to define and adhere to a certain set of rules.

    It’s part of why I like writing this blog, because it gives me a chance to consider the different sides of an issue. I also like it because it gives me a chance to see the humor in the process.

    But this whole National Grammar Day firestorm just makes me want to say, “Can’t we all just get along?”

    Comment by mightyredpen — March 3, 2008 @ 9:07 pm | Reply

  10. This post was too long. I got to “kerfluffle” and guffawed and stopped reading.

    Comment by Moondog — March 3, 2008 @ 10:46 pm | Reply

  11. […] There was actually a lot of controversy surrounding the day, eloquently summarized over at Mighty Red Pen. (Who knew grammar could cause such an uproar? Ask any copy editor.) Now that all the festivities […]

    Pingback by The Post-holiday Blues | Lauren Holder Raab — October 16, 2011 @ 12:31 pm | Reply

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