It’s National Grammar Day again:

Do you adore clean, correct sentences? Do ungrammatical advertisements make you cringe? We understand completely, and this is why the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar and MSN Encarta have designated March 4 as National Grammar Day.

Last year Geoff Pullum and I mocked the project on Language Log; this year Gabe Doyle has already gotten a posting out on his blog Motivated Grammar (a blog subtitled Prescriptivism Must Die!).

The SPOGG blog is a curious blend of what’s clearly intended to be light-hearted and somewhat self-mocking jokiness with what sounds like dead-serious advocacy of what Martha Brockenbrough takes to be the standard rules of English (which makes the just-kidding defense of the enterprise ring hollow to me). Here’s part of her reply, from last year, on the SPOGG site, to Geoff and me (and Nathan Bierma):

Linguists would have much less to do if everyone wrote and spoke according to the standard rules of English. We can understand their zeal for protecting their tenure. We understand less the desire to call people names, especially without taking the time to understand what they’re saying, and just as important, how they’re saying it.

In any case, it’s true that language is flexible and changing. It’s also true that educated people have certain expectations about how language will read and sound, and that a good grasp on it will open doors. Perhaps people cooled by the eucalyptus-scented breezes at Stanford have forgotten what it’s like to be on the other side of those doors.

(I manage to remember the date of NGD because it’s my granddaughter’s birthday.)

11 Responses to “NGD”

  1. sesquiotic Says:

    Well, _I’m_ on the other side of those doors, working as an editor, and I was tempted to write a screed against NGD this morning for promoting the “gotcha” game approach to language (as though communication were made to serve rules rather than the other way around).

    I also find her first sentence quoted simply remarkable. “Much less to do?” She really ought at least to learn what it is that linguists _do_. You know, rather than dismissing you as “cooled by the eucalyptus-scented breezes at Stanford” (where clearly one could never gather linguistic data!) she might take the time to understand what you’re saying. She might even notice the amount of sociolinguistic study that has been done on standard dialects. It could be useful to her, after all.

    Interesting that she says “good grasp on it” rather than “good grasp of it.” Perhaps it’s a dialectal difference. Perhaps it’s literalism versus idiom.

  2. SDT Says:

    I was curious about the SPOGG site so I took at quick look at it. The current post at the top is about a “grammar error” sent in by a high school teacher: “A ninth grader once wrote this sentence: Juliet’s last wish was to get laid in a beautiful tomb.” That’s kind of funny but is a grammar error? Isn’t it just a word with two meanings, each of which would work grammatically in the sentence?

  3. The Ridger Says:

    Considering that the “worst grammar error of 2008” is a misspelled word, I don’t think I can take them seriously.

  4. Gabe Says:

    That’s a great characterization of the SPOGG blog you’ve got there. I hadn’t been able to put my finger on quite what made me uneasy about it until I read your commentary, but you’ve nailed it. The whole thing is done with this weird “ha ha, just kidding… only not… or am i?” vibe to it. That strikes me as a really common trait of prescriptivist rants, couching these ill-informed opinions in a jokey manner such that you never know what they actually think. It’s rather discomforting to read.

  5. arnoldzwicky Says:

    To SDT: yes, the problem is just ambiguity. But many people view any problem with an expression as a problem in grammar — a consequence of the idea that “grammar” embraces everything having to do with the regulation of language. (I’ve posted about the “it’s all grammar” idea several times on Language Log. Spelling, punctuation, capitalization, etc. — it’s all grammar.)

    The Juliet example has an interesting twist. The student could have written either “Juliet’s last wish was to be laid in a beautiful tomb” or “Juliet’s last wish was for them to lay her in a beautiful tomb” and gotten away with it — even though these sentences are both potentially ambiguous. Unfortunately, “get laid” is most often used with the sexual reading, so it’s almost impossible for a reader to avoid that reading. (Notice that telling the student to Avoid Ambiguity is not helpful. The student has to appreciate that this particular ambiguity could be pernicious.)

  6. arnoldzwicky Says:

    To Gabe Doyle, on “couching these ill-informed opinions in a jokey manner such that you never know what they actually think.” Yes, it’s very common. I’ve had several postings in preparation for some time now on some instances of the phenomenon, in particular people saying something like “X is just one of my little pet peeves” and then going to pronounce, “X is just wrong”. I don’t yet have a snappy name for the phenomenon.

    (A side point: I noticed “It’s rather discomforting to read”, where I might have used “discomfitting”. Turns out that the verbs discomfort and discomfit have different sources and different earlier histories, but have now converged: NOAD2 has ‘make (someone) feel uneasy, anxious, or embarrassed’ for discomfort and ‘make (someone) feel uneasy or embarrassed for discomfit. There’s a MWDEU entry for discomfit, noting that

    Several usage commentators have, in the past, tried to convince their readers that discomfit means “to rout, completely defeat” and not “to discomfort, embarrass, disconcert, make uneasy”

    and going to observe that this is not true of current usage.)

  7. Gabe Says:

    Well, I trust your ability to come up with snappy names, so I eagerly await what it’ll be. And I thought that “discomforting” was somewhat unusual when I used it, but I don’t feel like I’d normally use “discomfitting” there either (especially since I didn’t really know what it meant until I OEDed it just now. Hmm… I think maybe “disconcerting” is what I was thinking of.

  8. Arrant Pedantry » Blog Archive » Reflections on National Grammar Day Says:

    […] can’t you take a joke?” defense, which doesn’t really seem to fly, as Arnold Zwicky and others have already […]

  9. Metapost: Four quick links « Motivated Grammar Says:

    […] last is a two-pack: Arnold Zwicky’s Grammar Day post from last year on Language Log, and this year’s version on his own blog.  There’re a lot of good points in these posts, but I’m just going to […]

  10. National Grammar Day: an outsider’s perspective « Sentence first Says:

    […] of its graceful handling, and to downplay the fussy fault-finding that has incurred the criticism of some language […]

  11. Arrant Pedantry » Blog Archive » It’s just a joke. But no, seriously. Says:

    […] put themselves firmly in the out group, while the peeve-fest typically continues unabated. But as Arnold Zwicky once noted, the “dead-serious advocacy of what [they take] to be the standard rules of English . . . […]

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