Sunday, March 7, 2010

Does NGD need a name change?

The spirit was willing: For National Grammar Day, it was marching with Mark Liberman and the Modal Auxiliary Corps in their assault on the Dark Tower of official peevology. But the flesh was weak, laid low by a nasty bronchitis as grimly persistent as the over/more than myth. Between coughing fits, though, I roused myself to enjoy the NGD observances of my fitter compatriots.

Neal Whitman, for example, argued that singular they is here to stay, so why not adopt a sensible set of rules for it? "Everyone did their best" -- fine. "If someone was pregnant I would be sympathetic to them" -- silly. (The piece is at Visual Thesaurus, subscription $19.95 a year, 14-day free trial available.) And Gabe Doyle used the occasion to debunk 10 usage beliefs (about hopefully, which/that, healthy/healthful, etc.) that thoroughly deserve debunking.

But there was plenty of evidence to buttress Arnold Zwicky's pessimism about a good-guy takeover of NGD. One of the day's lowlights, noted by Geoff Pullum, was the grammar poem that won the NGD poetry contest. (Perhaps it won because the other, better efforts were mostly about punctuation?) The New York Times's Learning Network blog bravely suggested we reclaim the holiday: "Boycott the red pen that ensnares us in syntactical games of right and wrong, and pick up a piece of literature, any piece of literature, and explore the English language with fresh eyes." Within the first 10 comments, though, we find "I was taught in school that you should never use 'But' to start a sentence" and, even sadder, "As a college professor, I’ve seen my fair share of  'your' instead of 'you are,' 'to' instead of 'too,' and other fundamental grammar errors." (That's not grammar, Professor.)

HuffingtonPost showed itself equally ignorant, offering 11 photos alleged to show "The WORST Grammar Errors Ever" and inviting readers to vote on them. Most of the 11, however, were the usual banal punctuation and spelling errors -- "student's for McCain," "Its the Law," brakes for breaks, their for they're. The only clear example of grammatical error -- a sign reading "Now we taking job application" -- seems very likely to be the work of a non-native speaker. (I hope that some of the 627 commenters have also made this point, but I can't bear to look, not till I get my strength back.)

All this makes me think that the problems with National Grammar Day may be baked into its very name. Most usage complaints are not about grammar at all; shouldn't an observance dedicated to spreading enlightenment start out by making this clear? Or should NGD simply be renamed, more accurately, National (Get Over Your) Peeve Day? 

6 comments:

Vance Maverick said...

Is that some editing detritus down there at the bottom of the post? Looks like you meant to end with "Peeve Day?".

Jan said...

Oh, yeah, that's what it is -- was. Thanks for the editing help!

outerhoard said...

Personally I have no problem in principle with the use of "they" when the gender is obvious, as in "if someone was pregnant...". This is of course a matter of opinion.

We could add more factors that can influence whether to use singular they. Register, perhaps. I think it does tend to make writing come across as less vivid, so that might be something to consider in some circumstances.

MelissaJane said...

There's something about the word grammar - or even the idea of grammar - that seems to equal "peeve" in a lot of minds. I always notice this in the comments on your Globe columns. Very often the point of the column is to take exception to some nonsensical peeve, pointing out that it's untrue, mistaken, misguided, and plain wrong; and somehow that inspires people to chime with "Yeah! And you know what OTHER imaginary grammar peeve is clear evidence of the decline of Western Civilization? SPLIT INFINITIVES, DAMNIT!"

Makes me think grammar education isn't our only problem; reading comprehension seems a bit lacking, too.

The Ridger, FCD said...

I'll bet he's never really seen "your" used for "you are" - only for "you're". His clue? He'll never, never hear anyone say (or see anyone write) "You are blue shirt is my favorite."

mighty red pen said...

It's weird how "grammar" functions as this catch-all terms. Reminds me of the Facebook page (and corresponding book) "I Judge You When You Use Poor Grammar," which is actually more accurately called "I Judge You When You Use Poor Grammar ... and Punctuation and Spelling," but I guess that's not as catchy.