Wednesday, February 27, 2008

National Grammar Day in the News

In addition to the Boston Globe column on Sunday, National Grammar Day is enjoying a bit of strangely negative publicity.

Nathan Bierma of the Chicago Tribune called it a witch hunt. We aren't sure what he thinks we have against witches, but we are certain he should launch a sense-of-humor hunt. He failed to understand we were just kidding about correcting Elvis's verb conjugations, but it can be so hard to read to the end of things when you are a newspaper journalist.

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.

Those Language Log people write constantly about grammar prescriptivists, lumping them all into one bucket. Not everyone has the luxury of studying linguistics at a university. Most people are subject to general expectations about grammar and correctness. When you include what is perceived to be an error on your resume, you can't get all huffy and say, "But lots of people do it this way." This is one really good reason to learn the principles, which generally aren't all that difficult for native speakers.

As we have said many times before, and even written about in our maligned Encarta column, not all of the so-called rules are actually rules. Many can and should be discarded. It's worth spending time studying the language, so you can use it to its best effect.

Linguists would have much less to do if everyone wrote and spoke according to the standard rules of English. We can understand their zeal for protecting their tenure. We understand less the desire to call people names, especially without taking the time to understand what they're saying, and just as important, how they're saying it.

In any case, it's true that language is flexible and changing. It's also true that educated people have certain expectations about how language will read and sound, and that a good grasp on it will open doors. Perhaps people cooled by the eucalyptus-scented breezes at Stanford have forgotten what it's like to be on the other side of those doors.

It's never wrong to do your best to speak and write correctly, just as it's never wrong to do your research and be kind. But we must go, now. There are some witches we need to take care of.

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