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!