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  • Who cares about National Grammar Day? Or is it whom?

    The ten-year rate of unemployment among grammarians consistently outpaces the general jobless rate
    The ten-year rate of unemployment among grammarians consistently outpaces the general jobless rate

    March 4 is National Grammar Day. According to its sponsor, the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar (SPOGG, they call themselves, though between you and me, it's not the sort of acronym to roll trippingly off the tongue), National Grammar Day is "an imperative . . . . to speak well, write well, and help others do the same!"

    The National Grammar Day website is full of imperatives about correct punctuation, pronoun use, and dangling participles. In the spirit of good sportsmanship, it points out an error in the Olympic theme song, "I believe." The song contains the phrase the power of you and I (that's a common idiom in English, even in Canada, plus it rhymes with fly in the previous line of the song), but SPOGG would prefer you and me.  There's even a link to vote for your favorite Schoolhouse Rock grammar episode (hint: unless you prefer grammar rules that have nothing to do with the language people actually speak, don't pick "A Noun is the Name of a Person, Place, or Thing").

    The National Grammar Day home page has even got its own grammar song available for download, though it's of less than Olympic quality, and the site also boasts a letter of support from former Pres. George W. Bush, apparently SPOGG's poster child for good grammar, who writes that "National Grammar Day . . . can help Americans prepare for the challenges ahead." To be sure, Bush wrote that before the grammar bubble burst. The growing number of grammarians filing first-time unemployment claims suggests that the former president was wrong about this, as he was about most things.

    Letter from George W. Bush supporting National Grammar Day

    According to Pres. George W. Bush, who was clearly absent on National Handwriting Day, "National Grammar Day . . . can help Americans prepare for the challenges ahead." But that was before the grammar bubble burst. Now grammar isn't worth the paper it's printed on.

    Since Passover is right around the corner, you might be tempted to ask why National Grammar Day is different from all other days (it's O.K. to ask that, so long as you don't want to know why it's very unique). National Grammar Day is a day to set aside everyday English and follow special rules that have nothing to do with how people actually talk or write. On all other days, we split our infinitives and start sentences with and and but. But on National Grammar day, we avoid but altogether and utter no forms of the verb to be at all. On all other days we use like for as. On National Grammar Day, we like nobody else's grammar all day long. On all other days, we use hopefully as a sentence adverbial. On National Grammar Day, we are no longer sanguine about anyone's ability to speak or write correctly, and we only expect the worst. Or we expect only the worst. And on National Grammar Day, orthodox grammarians don't light fires because logic demands that fires can't exist until after they've been lit. 

    Over the course of the year there are all sorts of language-themed holidays: National Handwriting Day, National Writing Day, Dictionary Day, English Language Day, Mother Language Day, even, comma, open quotes "Punctuation Day period close quotes." In England they celebrate Punctuation Day with "close quotes period". And now, since 2008, we've had National Grammar Day as well.

    You'd think that all this celebration of language would have some discernible effect. Like people following all the advice to be found on the websites devoted to these special days. At least we should see more handwritten definitions of English words, with lots of semicolons and dashes thrown in, all carefully diagramed with mistakes corrected in red by licensed grammarians. Correction -- on National Grammar Day one must avoid the second person and be careful always to write, into which lots of commas have been thrown, so as not to have a preposition anywhere near the end of anything. And one would think there'd be more special grammar greeting cards and presents to exchange.

    T-shirt reading,

    When you care enough to send the very good, better, or best, then you know it must be National Grammar Day. Be sure to keep your receipt, though, because when it comes to grammar, one size does not fit all.

    Instead, National Grammar Day comes and goes unnoticed. Except for a few purists who religiously send their lists of pet peeves to Santa Clause, most people could care less.

    It's not that we don't value good English. Quite the opposite, in fact. Everybody I meet avoids sentence-final prepositions because they bring bad luck. They don't split infinitives unless no one's looking. And as for the passive voice, they're certain it too must be avoided -- it's just that they're not exactly sure what the passive voice is, or how it's different from the past tense. And they all want to know where the commas in the sentence go.

    In fact, because people know I write a lot about language, they ask me what's correct and incorrect about their English, not just on National Grammar Day, but all the time. Unfortunately, when I tell them that, when it comes to putting a preposition at the end of a sentence, sometimes you have to; when I remind them of Star Trek's well-known imperative to boldly go where no one has gone before; when I tell them that the passive might actually be preferred in certain utterances; or that they could get away with fewer commas if they wanted to, they look at me like I'm talking about Klingon, not English.

    "You're not the boss of me," they say. Or, "It's a free country, no one tells me what to do." Then they go off in a huff, doing whatever they want to so far as language is concerned. Because they're right, it is a free country. However, their constant and predictable rejection of expert advice is how I discovered Baron's First Law of English Usage, which I offer here as my own personal contribution to National Grammar Day: When it comes to English, everybody wants to be correct, but nobody wants to be corrected.

    So if you have a burning question to ask about English grammar, or you want to complain about something you think is incorrect, feel free to leave a comment. Just don't be surprised if my response isn't what you were hoping for. 

    T-shirt reads,

     

#1
paulston@pitt.edu Mar 4, 2010 1:05 am
Dennis, admit that "the power of you and I" sounds like an abomination, even if we both (or at least I ) would add that such usage, found even in English middle class use vide PBS Saturday night BBC comiccs, is most likely an indication of ongoing pronoun case loss. Christina
#2
sjones@sltnet.lk Mar 4, 2010 1:59 pm
The point is that there is a feeling in English that you use the strong form of the pronoun after 'and', as you do in French' The problem is that there is not agreement in English as to which is the strong form. Traditionally it has been 'me', following the example of the French 'moi', but now there are many who feel it is 'I'. Hyper-correction doesn't help either.
#3
jcm5337@louisiana.edu Mar 4, 2010 4:48 pm
I hope that no one is greeting people today with "Happy National Grammar Day!" Avoid fragments!
#4
kmdavisus@yahoo.com Mar 4, 2010 6:39 pm
I would say, rather, that in English we now feel that conjoined NPs don't decline the same way that single NPs, and why should they? They don't take the same verbs, either. It's probably part of ongoing case-marker loss, and the sooner all pronouns join "you" and "it" in mimicking nouns the better, I say. (Or "says me", which opens a whole other can of worms...) - The Ridger
#5
Margaret.Cekis@comcast.net Mar 5, 2010 1:34 pm
Where can we purchase those T-shirts?
#6
mandelbaumf@netzero.net Mar 6, 2010 8:58 pm
I really like Baron's First Law of English Usage. And the t-shirts. How about greeting cards? Isn't that how Mother's (or is it Mothers') Day got started?
#7
mandelbaumf@netzero.net Mar 7, 2010 6:53 pm
We need grammar. You can't sit on "chair"; chair is just a word, in English, for that object designed to be sat upon. Language is an agreement that 'this symbol' represents 'that concept', and grammar is the rules that make that agreement work. There's a big difference between a house cat and a cat house, because, in English, adjectives precede nouns. Maybe a day to remind us about grammar is a good idea (although it's easy to go overboard about it, and easy to poke fun at it), because we're all aware of how many bad influences are out there.

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