NATIONAL GRAMMAR DAY REDUX.

Five years ago I posted about “National Grammar Day,” and I’m doing it again for the same reason: because this silly “official day” inspired a good response, a plea for sanity by lexicographer Kory Stamper:

I have a friend–well, a “friend”–who, every March 4th, marches forth into a variety of local stores with a black marker and corrects the signage in the name of “good grammar.” Grocer’s apostrophes are scribbled out, misspellings fixed, and good Lord the corybantic orgy of less/fewer corrections. This friend also printed up a bunch of stickers one year that read, “FIXED THAT FOR YOU. HAPPY NATIONAL GRAMMAR DAY.”
When he was finished telling me about how he observes National Grammar Day, he waited for me to break into a big smile and congratulate him. So when I didn’t–when, instead, my face compressed itself ever so slightly into a look of utter distaste–he was very confused. “Seriously,” he said, “don’t tell me that’s not awesome.”
Reader: that is not awesome.

Go on, read the whole thing; I call your attention in particular to her use of John E. McIntyre’s brilliant coinage “peeververein.”

Comments

  1. dearieme says:

    And yet, and yet. Bet you taught your children standard grammar, Hat.

  2. Nobody’s knocking standard grammar.

  3. J.W. Brewer says:

    You don’t catch me teaching my kids standard grammar. Humans are designed to learn language and my kids have a peer group skewed enough toward native speakers of the standard/prestige variety of AmEng (plus they read books, both the old-fashioned kind and the kind they download onto the Kindle that I paid for but do not know how to operate) that they’re picking it up perfectly well w/o my intervention. If anything, I found the various mistakes they made as they grew into language so downright fascinating to observe that I didn’t want to intervene and stamp them out, and of course they grew out of them on their own despite my irresponsible laissez-faire attitude. Alternatively, they’re apparently being taught “standard grammar” by the school district employees paid out of my exorbitant property taxes, although there if anything I’m worried they’ll be taught some sort of pernicious prescriptivist nonsense and I’ll have to decide whether to affirmatively unteach them. (My older daughter did have one teacher who was at least nuanced enough to say that while Oxford commas were mandatory for assignments in her class and you’d lose points for omitting them, not every consumer of their subsequent writing would necessarily have the same attitude on that issue.)

  4. dearieme says:

    “I’ll have to decide whether to affirmatively unteach them.”
    Proscribing prescriptivism is just neoprescriptivism, surely?

  5. Paul (other Paul) says:

    J.W. Brewer: “…my kids have a peer group skewed enough toward native speakers of the standard/prestige variety of AmEng (plus they read books …) that they’re picking it up perfectly well w/o my intervention.”
    So you like the fact that your children are learning “standard/prestige …AmEng”, informally and also formally at school. There must then be a benefit for children not exposed to such a peer group being taught standard/prestige AmEng.
    Especially by a teacher who is wise enough to say that once they learn the standard way they will know when and where it can be set aside. But at least they do know it.
    LH: “Nobody’s knocking standard grammar.” Does the prescriptivist/descriptivist divide then become a question of what “standard grammar” actually is? Are the less/fewer or more/over, etc, distinctions of prescriptivists (apparently) based on a different standard grammar ?
    Or if they are the same, then what is wrong with some people encouraging the use of the standard grammar which you apparently endorse ?

  6. Paul (other Paul) says:

    And having now read the piece you linked to: Of course I don’t endorse bullying, defacing signs, etc. But that doesn’t mean one can’t, if appropriate, gently point out the error or in general terms urge “corrrect” usage.

  7. Bill Walderman says:

    March 4th? Isn’t that Exelauno Day?

  8. Gassalasca says:

    Could you explain “peeververein”, I’m a bit slow today.

  9. Gassalasca: “Peever’s Union”, perhaps with implications of stereotypical German pedantry.

  10. Verein: “A union, association, or society; – used in names of German organizations.” The German Wikipedia article lists Traditionsvereine, Sportvereine, Hobbyvereine, Musische Vereine, Kulturvereine, Weltanschauungsvereine, Umwelt- und Naturschutzvereine, Selbsthilfevereine, karitative und humanitäre (Fremdhilfe-)Vereine, and Förder- und Trägervereine. I suspect the nineteenth-century Zollverein (German Customs Union) introduced it to the English-speaking world.

  11. Gassalasca says:

    :slaps forehead:
    My highschool German teacher would be so ashamed of me.

  12. “Alternatively, they’re apparently being taught “standard grammar” by the school district employees paid out of my exorbitant property taxes, although there if anything I’m worried they’ll be taught some sort of pernicious prescriptivist nonsense and I’ll have to decide whether to affirmatively unteach them.”
    Perfect.

  13. “But that doesn’t mean one can’t, if appropriate, gently point out the error or in general terms urge “corrrect” usage.”
    Yes it does. If radio waves from a Russian meteorite obliterated the prescriptivist urge in the brain of every grammar prescriptivist on the planet tomorrow, the world would be a much more pleasant place and language would be much, much more diverse and interesting.

  14. J.W. Brewer says:

    Contra other-Paul, I actually don’t have any sort of considered view or emotion as to whether I “like” that my daughters are growing up naturally/natively acquiring the standard/prestige variety of AmEng which is also my own native variety. It’s like asking me if I like being tall – I’m used to it, I don’t mind it, and I’m not plagued with guilt over whatever social or economic advantages it may incidentally confer, but I can’t say how much time I’d spend bemoaning my lot or trying to change things if I were short. I certainly don’t oppose certain sorts of efforts to help children who natively speak certain sorts of non-prestige varieties to also master the standard prestige variety and be able to code-switch when appropriate (although even there I think there are distinctions to be made – I don’t think kids from South Carolina ought as a general matter to be taught to mimic Connecticut pronunciation). I don’t think the sort of jerky behavior described in the linked piece has anything to do with that, and I don’t think trying to make people feel ashamed of their native language variety is a particularly productive way to promote the sort of code-switching facility that may in turn promote social mobility.

  15. If radio waves from a Russian meteorite obliterated the prescriptivist urge in the brain of every grammar prescriptivist on the planet tomorrow, the world would be a much more pleasant place and language would be much, much more diverse and interesting.
    Well said!

  16. Paul (other Paul) says:

    “…and language would be much, much more diverse and interesting.”
    Are you bored with the language then ? I find it very diverse and interesting now, and regularly discover new vocabulary.
    JW: Re teaching southerners Connecticut speech, whichwould of course be curious, I think there may be a trans-atlantic distinction here. Is there actually a generally recognised RP in the US, as there is in UK ?

  17. What J.W. Brewer’s daughter’s teacher said was a good point. Usually when you write for publication, you have to follow a style guide. It’s not whether something is correct or not correct, it’s whether you can consistently follow a set of rules. When writing for yourself, you can make your own decisions about whether to use an Oxford comma or whatever, but first you need to recognize that there are a set of decisions to make, and second you need to apply your own rules in a consistent way. For example, in fiction, if a character speaks in a particular dialect, that dialect should be represented in a consistent manner all the way through.
    Similarly, teaching someone to do, for example, APA referencing, is not saying that this is the only possible style, it’s just teaching how to follow a particular set of rules. Once you’ve learned how to follow one set of rules, it should be much easier to follow a different set of rules, as opposed to having no rules at all.

  18. Hat, I suspect it was the various societies that Germans set up in the U.S. that introduced -verein to American English at least.
    Pop: There is nothing even somewhat like RP in American English: cultivated Bostonians don’t aspire to talk like cultivated Houstonians, nor vice versa. Indeed, the only recent President who didn’t have a well-marked regional accent was Reagan, and he was an actor (Obama is also a special case). It is pretty much only actors, newscasters, and suchlike professional public speakers who learn a specific accent, and they do so to minimize individual accent features rather than to acquire a specific set.

  19. Hat, I suspect it was the various societies that Germans set up in the U.S. that introduced -verein to American English at least.
    Hmm, very likely… but that line would presumably have died out around WWI, when such societies would have vanished. Would it have persisted in nooks and crannies since then, or is awareness of the term in the minds of people today (like McIntyre) due rather to learning about things like the Zollverein in history classes or general reading? A nice question.

  20. I myself learned the word in German class, not in history class. I bet it’s not widely known in the US. If we want to know where McIntyre got it, we could ask him. I do think peeververein is brilliant.

  21. I think I first encountered the word “Verein” in a german-american society a relative was involved in, that either survived the world wars or (more likely) was formed later. At any rate, I don’t remember learning about the Zollverein (the fault of my memory and attention span, not my teachers), but I already knew the word when it came up in German class.

  22. J.W. Brewer says:

    contra maidhc, I don’t think oxford commas are the sort of thing that I even bother to be internally consistent about myself within a given piece of writing, nor do I think they are the sort of issue a style sheet should address. It is, I suppose, useful for public schools to get children used to the practical need in adult life to occasionally conform to pointless and arbitrary rules mindlessly enforced by bureaucrats/martinets, but I think public schools already inculcate that lesson in a sufficient number of ways that it need not be added to English instruction.
    I think I had probably read about the Zollverein as a historical thing before I first took German in 9th grade, but I don’t know if I would have been able to spot the morpheme in McIntyre’s coinage without having done the latter.

  23. nor do I think they are the sort of issue a style sheet should address.
    Then apparently you don’t think there should be such a thing as a style sheet, because that’s pretty much the paradigmatic example of what a style sheet is supposed to address.

  24. I agree with Hat here. At school, children are taught how to use commas. I was taught to leave out the last comma (I believe it’s known as the Cambridge comma). I didn’t realise until university that there was even another way of doing it. You might consider it a pointless and arbitrary rule, but whether you like it or not, children are being taught such rules.

  25. MacIntyre’s in Baltimore, though, and Germanness survived better there than elsewhere, as shown in the works of that famous Baltimorean, Heinrich Ludwig Mencken. Googling, I note the current existence of the Progressive Radoher Verein and Riga Kurlander Verein cemeteries, the Har Sinai Verein synagogue, and even the Verein Deutscher Trachten von Baltimore Tanzkreis, which was founded so recently as 1979 (to use a good Menckenisch phrase). In a proper American spirit, the officers of this last Verein are named Klaus-Skowronek, Stephen, Skowronek, Graziano, and Rothstein.
    In any case, I have posted to his personal blog asking him about it, though my comment is waiting for his moderation.

  26. Okay, we have the answer! Quoth John MacIntyre:

    Much humbler origins. When I was in high school, I read Don Marquis’s Archy and Mehitabel stories. The bit there about the Worms Turnverein made me look things up so I would get the joke.

  27. Huh, weird. One copy with links, one without. Please zap the first copy without links, O Hat of the Hats.

  28. Thanks very much for eliciting that extremely satisfying answer! I too discovered and loved Archy and Mehitabel at that age.

  29. O Hat of the Hats
    Shouldn’t that be O Hat of Hats?

  30. By the way, “Worms Turnverein” is stupendously brilliant. Don Marquis should be better known.

  31. Amen about “Worms Turnverein”. I heard of Archy and Mehitabel in high school, but never got turned on to it. I guess it’s not too late.

  32. J.W. Brewer says:

    If that’s really what style sheets are for (as opposed to, for example, making a particular newspaper’s stories all come out the same way on “Myanmar” v. “Burma”), consign them to the flames. The publishing and newspaper industries are headed for bankruptcy anyway. Let them go, and let their style-sheet enforcers beg bread in the streets unless they have the skills necessary to get hired as baristas.

  33. Excuse me? Would you like it if people said that about your profession?

  34. J.W. Brewer says:

    That was a counterfactual (as signalled by the introductory “if”) because I am in fact hoping to be advised that uniform-comma-policy enforcement is a peripheral/regrettable aspect of the editing enterprise rather than its paradigm core (where I am fully open to the possibility that in some institutional settings a uniform “house style” on certain recurrent issues is in fact of potential value), and was rather surprised to see a suggestion to the contrary. On the other hand, I didn’t see it listed in John McIntyre’s triage you linked to in a different post about zombie rules versus still-alive-and-dangerous rules, and I don’t know what inference to draw from that silence.
    In my own profession, I try not to impose my idiosyncratic stylistic preferences on other people’s written work (unless it’s something drafted for my signature) and push back, when not politically imprudent to do so, when they try to impose their preferences on mine.

  35. David Marjanović says:

    The word is brilliant.

    :slaps forehead:

    *facepalm*. It’s spelled *facepalm*. </prescriptivism
    (It’s so widespread now that I’ve heard it spoken, in Poland, by someone who speaks better French than English – and pronounced it with [al] instead of [ɑ]… or [ɒ] as it is in the southeastern US.)

  36. Bathrobe: “Hat of Hats” if derived from “King of Kings”, surely. But I had something else in mind, just what, I can’t recall at the moment, perhaps “a Scot of the Scots” or something of the sort.

  37. I too read Archie & Mehitabel as a teenager. I’ve always pronounced Don Marquis’s name like the British “marquess”, but I now see I could be wrong about that: does he in fact sound like a garden wedding tent?

  38. Over here we call a garden wedding tent a “tent”. We use “marquis” for another kind of rooflet: something that sticks out over the door on a theater, or possibly a store/shop of some kind. And we pronounce it like (an approximation to) the French word for a kind of nobleman.
    I’d guess that I’m not the only American who once believed that “marquess” was the feminine counterpart of “marquis”. Of course now I know better: a marquess is male, and the feminine counterpart is a marionette.

  39. A marchioness is the wife of a marshmallow.
    Is porte cochère just a name used by architects, or do others in the US use it too? I must say I’ve never heard it in England, but England didn’t have the 19C. tradition of sending architectural students to the École des Beaux-arts that the US had.

  40. I always said MAR-kwis, and Wikipedia agrees.
    Is porte cochère just a name used by architects, or do others in the US use it too?
    I have never heard anyone in the US use it, and would be very surprised to do so. Frankly, I would have thought it was an archaic term from the days when people drove up to your home in coaches.

  41. David Marjanović says:

    We use “marquis” for another kind of rooflet: something that sticks out over the door on a theater, or possibly a store/shop of some kind.

    Ah, marquise with non-silent [z]. Used in German (spelled with k), still feminine.

  42. Architects use it all the time, it’s porte-cochère this and porte-cochère that, ok, well, not very often but occasionally they do. I said I’d never heard it in England, but I now remember the awning at the Savoy hotel in London recently being described as a porte cochère. And here’s a Miami one. Maybe it’s a hotel word as well as an architect word. A British real-estate word I’ve recently heard, and it’s used by the general public too, is an “en-suite” (the British emphasis is on the “en”). It means of course a bedroom with an adjoining toilet or, if you’re lucky, a proper bathroom. People say things like “Our house has three en-suites”. The other British expression that’s new to me is “a build” to mean some construction. A “newbuild” (one word) is a new piece of construction, especially a house. Weird.

  43. I’m reeling a little–anyway, having to adjust my ideas.
    First, right, the thing over the door (“mar-KEE”) is spelled “marquee” not “marquis”, isn’t it? Is it the same with the British wedding tent?
    Second, it runs out that the name of the creator of Archy and Mehitabel is pronounced as Hat says. My high school English teacher was wrong! (Well, that’s not as big a shock as it could be. In second grade a teacher told us that that “bulb” was spelled “bolb”, and our sixth grade teacher told us that there are no second chances in life.)

  44. marie-lucie says:

    French terms:
    une marquise: 1. the wife of a marquis [silent s] (a middling noble rank: “marquess”); the word often connotes elegance but also artificiality and “putting on airs”; 2. a decorative glass awning over a door, usually supported by a wrought iron framework.
    une porte cochère (no hyphen): a large door, in two vertical parts, through which “coaches” (horse-drawn carriages) could enter an inner courtyard. Usually this door fits into a Roman-type archway (rounded at the top). The top of this door can be a separate piece, or each half-door can fit its half of the arch. There are still many examples in France in old buildings, admitting cars to a courtyard used as a private parking area. Often this type of door was so large (especially in width) that a regular size door was built into one of the sides in order to admit pedestrians without going to the trouble of opening the whole door (this was also a security measure to repel intruders).
    The door in the Sorbonne picture (in the French Wiki article) looks rather narrow for a porte cochère, but that must be because of its height.
    On the other hand, the Savoy picture for English “porte-cochère” does not qualify for the French term since it is not a door but a roof extending from the entrance, a kind of extra-large “marquise”.

  45. Ø, yes, the wedding tent & thing over the theatre entrance is a marquee. I’m sorry for causing the confusion. Is “it runs out that” a reference to something or just a phrase I don’t know?
    m-l, I don’t think porte cochère is normally hyphenated in English, it was just me adding it to “this” & “that”. French uses hyphens differently, though, doesn’t it? That’s a great description of the French term. I didn’t realise it differed so much from the English usage, i.e. a big canopy you can drive under, sometimes even one that’s freestanding (a small pavilion).

  46. David Marjanović says:

    our sixth grade teacher told us that there are no second chances in life

    Christ, what an asshole.

  47. AJP, I meant to type “it turns out”.

  48. My high school English teacher was wrong!
    My younger brother’s high school English teacher thought George Eliot was a man. My brother took great pleasure in correcting him. (He took it well, fortunately.)

  49. My sister’s junior-high English teacher spelled and pronounced the word “compound” as “countpound”.

  50. marie-lucie says:

    AJP, thank you. I took the hyphenated spelling porte-cochère from the English Wiki article.
    I used the English word “coaches” in my description but the French word for this type of horse-drawn vehicle is un coche, and the driver is un cocher. (A female driver – hypothetical I think – would have been une cochère).

  51. All derived from the Hungarian village of Kocs, pronounced almost exactly like English “coach”, where the horse-drawn cart with spring suspension was invented sometime in the 15th century. Thurn und Taxis, the Imperial postal service (we await Silent Tristero’s empire!) was the first to put them into regular service. However, kocsi in modern Hungarian means ‘automobile’.

  52. Wow, that’s interesting. I think we still talk about “coachwork” on cars, don’t we? Maybe only Rolls Royces.

  53. marie-lucie says:

    AJP, similarly, in some varieties of Spanish there is un coche (in two syllables, not as in French) which now means ‘automobile’. The extension of the word from a horse-drawn to an automobile vehicle is not at all unexpected since the two kinds of vehicle have the same function of family transportation. In French une voiture had the same semantic evolution (at least in France).

  54. In England a coach is the word used for a long-distance bus (though I think it may be on the way out), and another word for a train carriage, the equivalent of the US ‘car’, perhaps.

  55. My sister’s junior-high English teacher spelled and pronounced the word “compound” as “countpound”.
    I’ve seen “compound” – as in a group of buildings – given a derivation from Malay “Kampung”- is this complete nonsense?

  56. No, that’s correct. There are two different English words compound, from two different sources.

  57. David Marjanović says:

    “compound” – as in a group of buildings – given a derivation from Malay “Kampung”

    Wow.

  58. Just ran across this (in a family-written death notice that seems to have gone viral): “He despised [...] Southerners who used the words ‘veranda’ and ‘porte cochere‘ to put on airs…” So apparently it’s a Southern thing, in some circles at least.

  59. It deserves to have gone viral.

  60. J.W. Brewer says:

    In that obit, what’s up with the “they” in “He married his main squeeze Ann Moore, a home economics teacher, almost 50 years ago, with whom they had two girls Amanda Lewis of Dallas, and Alison of Starkville”?

  61. JWB: Definitely an anacoluthon: the sentence probably began as “They had” and was intended to be changed to “with whom he had”, but the change was only half-consummated.

  62. marie-lucie says:

    JC: Anacoluthon: I am delighted to run into the English equivalent of the French anacoluthe, one of the favourite insults of Tintin’s friend le capitaine Haddock, from whom I learned the word but not its meaning. Somehow it looks to me like it should have something to do with snails, but I know it is about grammar and stylistics.

  63. Compound, godown, amok… All quite anglicised (especially if you spell the last one ‘amuck’).

  64. Coolie, too.

  65. Actually, ‘coolie’ isn’t from Malay. My mistake.

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