National Grammar Day: an outsider’s perspective

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.”

10 Responses to National Grammar Day: an outsider’s perspective

  1. Fran says:

    I always miss these things! I was so busy concentrating on World Book Day, I didn’t know about the Grammar Day. Sounds like a great excuse to do some syntax with the kids and for once be able to justify to their satisfaction why they need to ‘know this stuff’.

  2. Stan says:

    Fran: Well, it is an American event rather than a global one (though the boundaries blur online), so you’re excused for overlooking it. At the risk of undermisunderestimating your students, you could tell them it’s NGD tomorrow and do the syntax with them then. After all, it won’t be World Fact-checking Day until next week.

  3. Sean Jeating says:

    Strange, that I would come to think of Erich Kästner who once wrote:

    Wer was zu sagen hat,
    hat keine Eile.
    Er läßt sich Zeit,
    und sagt’s in einer Zeile.

    [Trying to translate]

    Who has something to tell,
    is not in a hurry,
    he takes his time
    and says all in one line.

    Self-irony? Not sure.
    Anyway, what makes me smile is that the poet put what he had to tell in four lines. :)

    All this, as I was not able to put my thoughts into [is it ‘in’ or ‘into] five lines, and …
    Ah, simple prosa. As always: Enjoyed this very much, Stan, your Limerick inclusive.
    Re the ‘Day of the Book’: I thought that’s April 23rd, the day of Shakespeare’s birth and dead.
    Never mind, for me there are yearly 365 days of the book. :)
    The peace of the night.

  4. Tim says:

    I didn’t know either of those existed. I guess there are just too many “days”, globally, and I’m not plugged into the literature scene enough.

    Grammar is a tricky thing, but so long as people understand what you are trying to convey, where is the harm in adapting grammar to suit your own ends?

    The limerick made me chuckle. And the fact that we don’t have a standardised set of grammar rules in our language just makes it that much more interesting from a global, communicative point of view. At least, that’s my conclusion.

  5. Stan says:

    Sean: Thank you for sharing Herr Kästner’s verse. I see why it would appeal to you! Maybe the poem was aspirational, and its creator was aiming to reduce his thoughts to a minimum but had not quite succeeded at the time of writing. Would it be cheating to rearrange its four short lines as one long line with three slashes? Your translation seems fine, by the way; I can’t think of a way to rhyme lines 2 and 4 in English without betraying the original sense.

    You are right that April 23 is also World Book Day, also known as World Book and Copyright Day. But every day for me, as for you, is book day, and there are not only 365 of these days in a year but 365 and a little more!

    [You could say “put my thoughts into five lines”, but it would perhaps be more expressive if you were to phrase it as: “put/get my thoughts across in five lines” or “express/convey/summarise/articulate/communicate my thoughts in five lines”.]

    Tim: I know what you mean. It’s good that these “event days” exist for those who have need of them, or to raise awareness of worthy issues, but for many people there are just too many of them, and they pass by easily unnoticed and unmissed. Though I read rather a lot, I wouldn’t say I’m plugged into the literature scene either, but I saw World Book Day referred to here and there and thought it worth mentioning.

    You’re right that grammar’s lack of official standardisation (and the impossibility thereof) makes it more interesting. I find grammar endlessly surprising, complex and intriguing, which is partly why I have little patience for simplistic decrees to “Do X” and “Don’t do Y”, which overlook grey areas that are often not only grammatically and historically significant, but also more interesting than a list of bland decrees.

  6. Fran says:

    Your reply made me giggle!

  7. I had not heard of National Grammar Day. Like what they always say, it is essential to always write grammatically correctful…

  8. I have to be rather critical of the limerick, for reasons pertaining mostly to scansion and partly to intelligibility (particularly of the phrase “facts of uncertain syntax”).

    Here’s an attempt at a rewrite:

    A venerable usage authority
    Made rules his consuming priority.
    And when challenged on facts
    ‘Bout disputed syntax
    Said: “Mine’s the correcter minority.”

  9. Stan says:

    Fran: Glad to hear it!

    Jams: NGD doesn’t have a high profile beyond its niche audience, but the event has only been around for a few years, and I think it will grow through the efforts of its enthusiastic and internet-savvy organisers. Less helpful, perhaps, are the grammatical mistakes and the letter of praise from George W. Bush.

    Dragon: No, you didn’t have to be! But I appreciate the criticism. I wrote the poem in a hurry, for a bit of fun, shortly before bedtime, so I didn’t expect it to withstand scrutiny. Line 3 is far from perfect, but I did want to set up “syntax” with the stress on its first syllable. I like your second line, and I might change “uncertain” back to “dubious”, but apart from that I’m fairly content with my own version.

  10. “Have to be” is, of course, a figure of speech. But I do enjoy the challenge, whenever I see a limerick that doesn’t work for me, of trying to see if I can improve it. This might offend people with extremely low self-esteem, but I’m confident that you’re the sort of person who can handle the discussion and pedantry. :-)

    For the second line, I also considered: “Kept rules as his foremost priority“, but decided that “kept” didn’t carry a strong enough meaning because keeping rules usually just means following them, not recording them.

    The main issue with the third line is that the scansion forces us to emphasise the word “ten”, but “ten” is an irrelevant detail – who cares how many facts there were?

    I prefer “dubious” over “uncertain”, although I still struggle to see what it means in context. To me, a fact of uncertain/dubious syntax can only mean that the fact itself is worded in a syntactically dubious way. It cannot mean that the fact pertains to dubious syntax. But it seems likely that the latter is what you meant.

    The final line is a challenge with respect to the scansion. Too many unstressed syllables at the start, plus unnatural stress on “correct”. I thought that using the ungrammatical “correcter” might add to the humour (limericks are, after all, supposed to end with a twist), but maybe it’s just confusing. However, the only alternative I can find (credit to the Oxford Thesaurus) is the word “unerring”, which doesn’t feel right.

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