Grammar is a piano I play by ear. All I know about grammar is its power. – Joan Didion
Today, March 4th, is both World Book Day and, in the U.S., National Grammar Day. I wrote about books yesterday, so grammar gets the nod today. NGD was founded by Martha Brockenbrough in 2008, and this year it’s being run by Mignon Fogarty, AKA Grammar Girl. As the title of this post indicates, I am an outsider to the event — not in a Little Match Girl sense, but because I’m a relatively obscure observer from the west coast of Ireland, and because I’m not a linguist or a grammarian — though I sometimes play the piano by ear, if that counts for anything. So if I’m culturally (or grammatically!) out of step in my observations, do set me straight.
What I find most interesting about NGD is how contentious it has been since its inception, at least among a few linguablogging heavyweights. The problems seem to arise chiefly because NGD’s champions strongly promote the use of Standard English. This is a very important dialect, but it is still just a dialect, and it is sometimes wrongly considered superior to non-standard dialects. Furthermore, there is no standard Standard English. So the usual fault lines emerge between descriptivist and prescriptivist attitudes. I don’t know how this year’s NGD compares with that of previous years, but I did see a concerted effort in some quarters to emphasise the wonders of grammar and the pleasure of its graceful handling, and to downplay the fussy fault-finding that has incurred the criticism of some language specialists.
Certainly it’s a pity there is so much misinformation about what constitutes good or acceptable grammar and usage, but it’s unsurprising given that reputable sources like the AP Stylebook continue to propagate myths about split infinitives and the meaning of “hopefully”. Hopefully they’ll soon see fit to finally get over those sticking points. There’s a lot more leeway in language than many people appear to suppose; ignorance of its flexibility or fear of ridicule for its misuse can lead them to rely on “rules” that might not be valid at all, but rather the idiosyncratic stylistic preferences of an 18th century grammarian, preserved intact and repackaged today as universal commandments.
It’s also a pity there’s so much antagonism over usage, but this too might be inevitable. The late Irish writer Hugh Leonard once received a letter that said: “Life’s headiest drive is not love’s orgasm or hate’s dagger, but one man’s need to change another man’s copy.” I’ve nothing against grammatical guidance — this blog has its fair share — and there is clearly a need for sound linguistic counsel and a wise editorial hand especially for prose intended for publication or business. Sometimes, though, grammatical advice takes the unhelpful form of ill-informed dogma or triumphalist scorn.
Surely 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 spend its special day mocking poor usage or mocking the mockers? Have fun, don’t make fun. Or do as John McIntyre suggests: use the occasion to learn how to be a better writer (or publisher). Me, I had fun — I scribbled this Limerick to submit to a National Grammar Day competition:
A venerable usage authority
Preserved rules as his top priority.
When challenged on ten facts
Of uncertain syntax,
He said: “But I’m in the correct minority.”