The main title of a talk that Geoff Pullum gave tonight (in competition with the State of the Union address), at the University of Washington (in Seattle). Subtitle: “Ignorance of grammar, damage to writing skills, and what we can do about it.”
It’s a topic that Geoff and Mark Liberman and I and others have railed about for years and years.
The grammar instruction that survives in modern America amounts to little more than uncritical repetition of 200-year-old classifications that make little sense, plus a few lists of unexplained prohibitions: Don’t do that, this is an error, beware of the passive. Worse, those who purport to know English grammar use it primarily to nitpick: The surprising and engrossing business of exploring sentence structure is perverted into a source of cheap points in a game of Gotcha. The victims of this grammar bullying end up in a sorry state: insecure about their linguistic abilities yet clueless about what to do. Writing abilities suffer rather than being enhanced. This lecture surveys the situation, and offers not only some warnings but also some remedies.
Every year as National Grammar Day (March 4th, alas, my grand-daughter’s birthday) approaches, my heart sinks. The occasion serves primarily to celebrate the program of long-outmoded classifications, bizarre prohibitions, and nitpicking, with the resultant clueless insecurity that Geoff refers to.
I’ve been posting on so-called “dangling modifiers” since 2003, but, still, every time I have to read in some corrective lesson about what’s really going on with these phenomena, which amounts to a wholesale abandonment of centuries-old mistaken ideas about them and a substitution of fresh conceptualizations and terminology, using modern scholarship about English grammar. Dozens of times, again and again, and nothing I say shifts popular opinion. (In addition, since new readers keep coming along, I can’t assume any continuity with my earlier postings. There’s no cumulative development of ideas; on the net, history is always beginning again.)
Many people have told me that I’m in the wrong business: I should go back to writing for my academic colleagues, and forget about writing for a larger audience. But I’m hopelessly a teacher, so I keep trying. And raging, and (often) weeping. The stuff that kids are being taught! Right up there with the Four Humors.