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  • National Grammar Day in Wartime

    Speak the language of your flag
    Speak the language of your flag

    March 4th is National Grammar Day. Someone who tweets under the name @DrGrammar just has to write about #NationalGrammarDay. So, in the spirit of the latest grammatical fad of starting every sentence with “so,” here goes.

    National Grammar Day is one of those holidays, like Halloween, Purim, and Diwali, where celebrants dress up in costume and run through the streets making noise, lighting fires, and correcting other people’s grammar—activities guaranteed to scare away evil spirits. Unfortunately, correcting grammar scares away just about everybody.

    In my National Grammar Day post back in 2010, I explained that "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."

    That’s why descriptive grammarians feel about National Grammar Day the way scientists feel about intelligent design. In contrast, prescriptive grammarians want National Grammar Day celebrated in the public schools, much the way Better American Speech Week was celebrated in schools a century ago. 

    Better Speech Week Oct 1918. 

    For over a decade Better American Speech Week was celebrated in schools throughout the country. [Archives of the Chicago Woman’s Club, Chicago History Museum]

    In 1918, the Chicago Woman’s Club initiated Better American Speech Week and promoted it in the nation’s schools. Students were required to take the Better Speech Pledge, which equated good grammar and pronunciation with patriotism. 

    Schools also ran poster contests during Better American Speech Week, with the best posters displayed in special exhibits or published in local newspapers. But much like now, 1918 was a time of war, and just as today we’re asked to report suspicious persons or unattended packages, Americans back then were exhorted to be watchful and report their neighbors for suspicious activities, especially if those neighbors were immigrants.

    Better American Speech Pledge for Children

    Above: The nation’s students took the Pledge for Children, which equated good speech with good citizenship. Below: Speak the language of your flag, a poster illustrating Better American Speech Week, appeared in the Chicago Daily News on Dec. 15, 1918. [Archives of the Chicago Woman’s Club, Chicago History Museum]

     Speak the language of your flag poster

    To support the war effort, during Better Speech Week American schools combined civics lessons with grammar. Schoolchildren were asked to spy on one another and report instances of sloppy pronunciation, bad grammar, and slang. The worst offenders—whether immigrant or native-born—were tried before the class, summarily sentenced, and interned. The spies who were caught had to write essays describing the error they had made and correcting it. Offenders were also interned as enemy agents, but despite the warning that anyone escaping from detention "to harm our speech" would be “shot at dawn,” there are no reports of students actually being executed for crimes against English. 

    Court Martial for bad grammar

    Above: Court martials for bad speech or grammar were a regular feature of Better American Speech Week (or should that be courts martial?). Below: After they took this pledge, classroom secret agents spied on one another; followed by a report of a classroom court martial for bad speech. [Archives of the Chicago Woman’s Club, Chicago History Museum] 

    Secret agent pledge 

    Court martial for bad English

    Better American Speech Week died out after 1930, a victim of the Depression. Now it’s just a single day, National Grammar Day, because since the 2008 crash we can’t even afford a whole week of better English. Language guardians still spend National Grammar Day exposing errors and crimes against language, but so far no one’s suggesting that we send children who say like for as to some kind of kiddie Gitmo. 

    Even though there’s a War on Terror, in the current economic climate the best we can hope for is that the Affordable Health Care Act might provide funds for curing Americans’ bad grammar. But it’s clear that in light of the budget cuts brought on by the Sequester, federal agencies will no longer be allowed to spend money correcting their own English, let alone anybody else’s. 

    This year National Grammar Day falls on a Monday. But don’t look forward to a three-day weekend of big discounts in stores and barbecuing split infinitives. Merchants don’t want their “10 items or less” signs defaced and nobody wants to eat with a pedant. Plus, on National Grammar Day there are no presents. Gifting a copy of Strunk & White on National Grammar Day is as welcome as a personal hair trimmer or a new deodorant. So here’s a tip for those of you planning a big National Grammar Day party: Nobody’s going to come to a National Grammar Day party to have their grammar corrected. Celebrants find that National Grammar Day is a holiday often spent alone. 

    Every year there’s a National Grammar Day haiku contest. But if we really want to reflect the spirit of Better American Speech Week, we need a National Grammar Day poster contest. To enter, send me your illustrations of this year’s National Grammar Day slogan: "On National Grammar day, everybody wants to be correct, but nobody wants to be corrected." To start things off, here's the first entry:

    Can national grammar day be observed in the passive voice 

    So on second thought, maybe this year we should forget about National Grammar Day altogether, make it a custom more honored in the breach than the observance. Because what’s true on National Grammar Day is true all year round: Everybody does want to be correct, but nobody wants to be corrected. 

    Whole Foods express lane, 10 items or fewer

    At Whole Foods, even the signage is organic.

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