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National Grammar Day, Bah Humbug!

Evidently today is National Grammar Day.  I am not a fan.

Like most Americans of my generation I was taught to identify parts of speech, diagram sentences and intone with the rest of the class the mysteries of the three-and-twenty most holy helping verbs: “is, am, are, was, were, be, being, been, have, has, had, do, did, does, may, must, might, can, could, will, would, shall, should”.   Because I was good at it, and felt a call to the service of pedantry, I continued my novitiate in stranger accents, in German, Latin and Greek.

I was well on my path the the priesthood of a grammarian, when in 1992 I abandoned all my vows in a bus in Somerville, Massachusetts, when a drunk showed me what language was really all about.

Somerville, Massachusetts

Image via Wikipedia

I’m not one to start a conversation with a stranger —  even a sober one — on public transportation.  But in this case I had little choice in the matter, since this particular gentleman insisted on initiating a debate on the virtues of the Allman Brothers, a subject which I was neither equipped nor inclined to discuss with him.

When I expressed my disinclination to debate, and further, my ignorance of all things Allman, the dear fellow was offended and let out a string of expletives, starting with “Un-freakin’-believable” (albeit with a more emphatic, saltier interposed participial adjective than I can relate to you here) and continuing for several minutes.  Nothing he said was grammatical.  Little was even coherent.  But what I did understand was pure genius.  I wish I had a tape recorder.  As my stop approached, I hesitated a moment, intending to thank the man, offer him my congratulations and laud him as a poet of the first order.  But the smell, as well as my own instinct for self-preservation, held me in abeyance.

Since that day I have been an apostate to grammar.  I think we should all have a range of ways to speak and write,  and should be able to modulate according to circumstances. Language is like a wardrobe.  A man should have jogging shorts as well as a tuxedo.  In the end, language is not about rules.  It is about suiting the words to the occasion, of putting the right words in the right places, and what is “right’ will depend on circumstances.

So down with grammar, down with the rules! Go, split an infinitive, dangle your participles, and like my good friend on the #86 bus, even separate your inseparable prefixes.  To quote Duke Ellington, “If it sounds good, it is good”.  And remember that the goal in the end is expression and understanding.  If you are understood, then you’ve accomplished more than many.

As Gertrude Stein wrote:

Clarity is of no importance because nobody listens and nobody knows what you mean no matter what you mean, nor how clearly you mean what you mean. But if you have vitality enough of knowing enough of what you mean, somebody and sometime and sometimes a great many will have to realize that you know what you mean and so they will agree that you mean what you know, what you know you mean, which is as near as anybody can come to understanding anyone.


{ 4 comments… add one }
  • Michelle O'Rorke 2010/03/04, 5:34 pm


    You may find this blog interesting: http://motivatedgrammar.wordpress.com/

    It is written by a grammarian who also does not like National Grammer Day, or “prescriptivists” who insits on fixed ‘correct’ grammar.

  • Winter 2010/03/05, 3:02 am

    There is Syntax, and there is Grammar.

    Syntax is about the rules of word form and order that you observe to be used in a language. Mostly in speech. This is about how people communicate in real life in spoken, written, and gestured words. A fertile field of learning with many amazing insights in cognition.

    Grammar are the rules you learn for writing text. It doubles for helping adults to master speaking a new language.

    Writing is not a natural, human language. More like mathematics or computer language. The written language needs prescriptive rules because writing words down as you say them makes for unreadable text. Grammar rules have to be explicit, simple, and few as they have to be learned and memorized by children in school. There is no way any grammar can cover even a sizable fraction of human expression.

    Most people (almost all non-linguists and some linguists) make the reification fallacy: Because the word Grammar exists, there must exist a corresponding entity in language. Therefore, you should speak as you have learned to write.

    As it is impossible to actually speak as you write, and incomprehensible to write as you speak, the harm of this superstition is very limited.

  • Chris Puttick 2010/03/08, 8:38 am

    Surely you mean participles. There is grammar, good or bad for communication as it may be; but the correct words are surely important…

    Unless that was an instruction to passing physicists?


  • Rob 2010/03/08, 10:16 am

    Well, “particle” is a grammatical term as well, but it is — as you indicate — the wrong one in this context. Me bad. If one is to dangle, it is certainly more fun to dangle your participles.

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