Literal-Minded

Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Why the Heck Am I Observing National Grammar Day, Anyway?

Posted by Neal on March 4, 2010

I’m interrupting my series of three grammar-skewing posts before the end of the week to talk about National Grammar Day itself. Longtime readers, especially those who read some of the blogs on the blogroll here, may be wondering why this blog is listed on the NGD website, why I’ve put the NGD badge on the sidebar over there on the right, why I’m dedicating a few of my posts to NGD, why I’ve written a column for Visual Thesaurus especially for NGD, and why in the world I’m in a video for a corny song about NGD? Why, when some of the linguists and writers on language I most admire have said (and are saying) things like this about NGD:

… National Grammar Day was cooked up by Martha Brockenbrough as a stunt. She wanted to publicize her book. This year, Mignon Fogarty (you know, Grammar Girl) has taken over, and she has two books to flog. (John E. McIntyre, You Don’t Say, 2010)

And so it has come to be National Grammar Day again, one of those made-up holidays like National Soup Month or World Hello Day. … [T]o the dismay of us linguists, National Grammar Day will mostly just result in prescriptivist dilettantes coming out in full force, tossing around ignorant grammatical proclamations with gusto, like so many dimes at a dime toss. It’s not going to get anyone excited about psycholinguistics or syntactic theory or any of the really awesome parts of language. (Gabe Doyle, Motivated Grammar, 2009)

“If you see a sign with a catastrophic apostrophe, send a kind note to the storekeeper,” urges SPOGG at nationalgrammarday.com. “If your local newscaster says ‘Between you and I,’ set him straight with a friendly e-mail.” Such corrections are seldom friendly, welcome or necessary. They are usually self-righteous, irritating and misinformed. (Nathan Bierma, Chicago Tribune, 2008 [no longer online, but included in his book])

[NGD is] just about as annoying as it could be. In her column, Brockenbrough even takes Elvis Presley to task for singing “all shook up” instead of “all shaken up”. I’m not making this up.

Meanwhile, I’m ignoring the nastiness of National Grammar Day, in favor of doing research on varieties of English and how their grammars work. (Arnold Zwicky, Language Log, 2008)

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 verbs 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.(Dennis Baron, The Web of Language, 2010)

The most I myself had to say about NGD last year was a wary

National Grammar Day, eh? I don’t know …. [E]very day is Grammar Day here at Literal-Minded. So I’ll just carry on with the kind of stuff I always talk about…

Some of these people also criticize the ugliness of the acronym SPOGG (Society for the Promotion Of Good Grammar). Actually, that’s one thing I kind of liked about NGD. Even though I objected to the implicit equating of good grammar with Standard English, I thought the acronym was funny in the same way as Marge Simpson’s SNUH (Springfieldians for Nonviolence, Understanding, and Helping).

So anyway, what happened? One thing is that this year NGD has a new personality driving it: Mignon Fogarty. Like Bierma, Zwicky, and others, I found the tone of NGD’s originator, Martha Brockenbrough, distastefully smug and patronizing (see the quote from Bierma above). I find Fogarty’s manner much more friendly and approachable. Her presentation of the topics is levelheaded and she even goes into linguistics territory at times (see my review of her podcast for details). In her new book, she emphasizes that often, what many people think of as a grammar rule is really just a matter of style. I don’t agree with what she says all the time (see my review of her first book, and my post on funnest), but I like what she does for the most part.

Second, and related to the first, is that the NGD site this year really does seem to be making an effort to do fun stuff, with a poetry contest, funny typos, the goofy song. Like Gabe Doyle did in his post, she has put up a list of grammar myths. I’ll admit I cringe a little at seeing their list of songs with nonstandard grammar in the lyrics labeled as a “hall of shame”, but on the other hand, people who notice this kind of thing could be future linguists. Back in high school, I refused to like Prince’s “When Doves Cry” because it contained the line “Dig, if you will, a picture / Of you and I engaged in a kiss”. That brings me to my third point…

When I started to get interested in language, I read the material that was most readily available to me, and that was my school textbooks, the couple of usage guides that were in the house, and the occasional William Safire column that our newspaper picked up. As a result, my interest developed into the kind of strident prescriptivism that would cause me to switch the radio station when I heard “bad” grammar in a song. It was only later, when I started getting my hands on linguistics material, that I started to realize it was much more interesting to explore the parts of the grammar that might not be in the textbooks and find out what was going on, than to condemn any piece of unusual grammar I heard.

It has finally occurred to me that many eager NGD observers may be like I was before I discovered linguistics, not realizing that criticizing people’s grammar is not the only way (in fact, not even a good way) a love for language can express itself. I’ll write about grammar in the way that pleases me, and maybe a few of the NGD-directed visitors will find something they like. And that brings me to my fourth point…

National Grammar Day may have been founded by someone with fundamentally different views on grammar from mine, but this thing is bigger than just her now. National Grammar Day should be for anyone who loves grammar, and linguists love grammar! As Randy Alexander writes in his post for NGD, “The very word ‘grammar’ fills me with excitement.” (Read his excellent post to find out why.) It would be a shame to let NGD be celebrated only by the people who (though they may not know it) don’t have the highest appreciation for grammar.

I’m glad to see that there are other keepers of NGD that are thinking along these lines. For example, you may have thought John McIntyre disapproved of NGD, based on my earlier quotation from him, but he doesn’t. And look at some of his recommendations:

… National Grammar Day can also be more than a stunt. One way to make it substantial — no, not by acting as an officious prig and peever — is to practice the craft to produce more effective writing.

… Get yourself some good advice. If you were taught bogus “rules” in school, or if no one ever taught you any rules at all, you need additional education. Buy Garner’s Modern American Usage and/or Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. Get hold of Joseph Williams’s Style. Start reading what the linguists say at Language Log. Read through the posts on this site’s blogroll. Hell, read my back posts. Are you going to be a serious writer or are you content to be some schmuck who can’t put a noun against a verb without embarrassing himself?

This is coming from a copy editor, mind you. Mark Allen is another copy editor who, like me, lives in Central Ohio, and has been emitting tweet after tweet about NGD (some of them links to my NGD posts — thanks, Mark!). One of them was a plug for a talk yesterday at OSU by one of my old syntax professors. There are also linguists tweeting about NGD: Carnegie Mellon’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences tweeted “March 4 is National #Grammar Day! Read how linguist Paul Hopper will celebrate”, linking to a page talking about Hopper’s research. And then there’s Randy Alexander, mentioned above.

So if you’re a grammar fan, happy National Grammar Day!

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9 Responses to “Why the Heck Am I Observing National Grammar Day, Anyway?”

  1. Mark Allen said

    Thanks for another terrific post, Neal. I suspect SPOGG’s strident prescriptivism is with tongue somewhat in cheek. I recommend a blog from another newspaper copy editor for an excellent statement on why good grammar matters: http://blogs.kansas.com/grammar/2010/03/04/it’s-national-grammar-day-2/

  2. Martha said

    It is largely tongue in cheek, Mark. Nathan Bierma never talked to me before he wrote his column that got the linguists’ knickers in a twist, and I don’t think in his original piece he spent enough time reading my writing to get the humor of it.

    It’s weird seeing my name associated with the unpleasant caricature on certain sites. Most people who’ve e-mailed me and talked to me, like John McIntyre, think I’m an all right sort of person.

    In the everyday world, standard English is what you need to succeed at work. If you have misplaced modifiers and other errors in your cover letter, you probably won’t get the job interview. All rules go out the window when you’re a pop star, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make a point with the nonstandard constructions they use. My students always liked and remembered those lessons.

    There are many so-called rules that aren’t, which I call out in my book. Anyone who labels me or SPOGG (glad you got the humor of that) as rigid prescriptivists is misinformed. I’m just trying to help people write and speak so they will be understood and respected, and get opportunities because of their language skills.

    Linguists aren’t in the business of helping people write and speak more clearly, of course. But there is room for those of us who want to do that, and I’m proud of the work I’ve done to make this happen. I’m also glad to see so many people care about language, whatever their opinions are.

    • Neal said

      Thanks for stopping by, Martha, and I’m sorry to have shown you in a bad light. I’m sure we’d get along fine in person, as fellow language appreciators, and you were gracious to invite *anyone* interested in grammar to submit a link to the NGD page. I wrote “distastefully smug and patronizing” in the interest of honesty, because that’s how it really did come across to me in print, and I wanted linguists who happened to be reading this to know that I fully understood how they felt, before I got on with explaining why they shouldn’t necessarily blow off NGD.

      I think most linguists would agree that “standard English is what you need to succeed at work. If you have misplaced modifiers and other errors in your cover letter, you probably won’t get the job interview”. Also, I myself am all for using nonstandard or unusual grammar in pop songs to illustrate linguistic points, and do it quite a bit. Finally, although it’s true in general that “Linguists aren’t in the business of helping people write and speak more clearly”, many are; e.g speech therapists. On the writing side, David Crystal writes in Just a Phrase I’m Going Through about how he helped a textbook publisher to arrange text and break lines in children’s readers to make the syntax easier for children to read. Furthermore, more linguists should be in the business of helping people write and speak more clearly, and more people in that business should gain some linguistic background. It’s not that copy editors and teachers and resume consultants do a bad job, but IMO having some linguistic knowledge would snap some of the loosely connected pieces of practical knowledge into a larger framework.

  3. [...] numerous folks around the Web are celebrating in their own special ways, I’ve opted to recognize NGD via confession, to my greatest grammar sins and/or [...]

  4. Great post, Neal! [and not at all just because you've quoted my coblogger at Sinoglot :)] The trajectory you describe — a language interest manifesting itself in prescriptivism early on, but broadening into a more descriptivist approach as you discovered linguistics — is a trajectory I’ve gone through too. It takes honesty and even a bit of courage to recognize that and to realize, then, that many of the folks celebrating grammar day in a descriptively incorrect way are probably people who would jump at the chance to develop a more scientific (and fun!) approach. It’s a fantastic reason to join NGD and I applaud you for it.

    Double thanks to you, Martha, for joining the conversation when it might have been easier to sit out. Given the reputation you’ve developed in some linguistic circles, having your response here represents nothing less than a prescriptivist-descriptivist love-in! Thanks for starting something that might potentially improve the sorry state of popular thinking on grammar.

  5. [...] NGD should, as Neal Whitman wrote in a thoughtful post, simply be “for anyone who loves grammar”? Grammar has a poor enough reputation already — why [...]

  6. [...] way of speaking, often to some standard version of the language. But, as Neal Whitman wrote on his post today for NGD: It has finally occurred to me that many eager NGD observers may be like I was before [...]

  7. Karl said

    I regularly hear the notion that adhering to a norm “is what you need to succeed at work.” This claim needs to be considered very carefully, because it can be used to justify insidious forms of unjustified discrimination, in accent, in dress, in gender, etc., etc. And “work” is too broad a construct to justify narrow standards in language. As Rosina Lippi Green has shown so well, language is as powerful a discriminatory tool as many other characteristics, and can be used more subtly.

    I find the sentiment expressed in the phrase to be just one more unexamined justification for intolerance of variety. Be male, be white, wear a suit and tie, comb your hair, don’t be too tall or short, and don’t split your infinitives or have a regional or non-native accent!

    (Every one of the above characteristics, and many more, except for the one about infinitives, can be shown to be “what you need to succeed at work.” There is a reasonable body of literature on what factors contribute to workplace success in various professions.)

    Just be careful, that’s all.

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