I wouldn’t accord the cockamamie notion of “National Grammar Day” any attention except that it inspired a lively column by Nathan Bierma, who says he is “one of those people who cares about the difference between a gerund and a participle, between a restrictive and non-restrictive relative clause” but has come to realize that “most of the time — when we’re among friends, family, or anyone we feel comfortable with — we should simply let our hair down and allow our unpolished emissions of language to burst out of us in all their untidy splendor.”
So I can’t join the witch hunt of the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar (which goes by the unappetizing acronym of SPOGG), which is sponsoring National Grammar Day as a chance to flag any violation of standard English usage in any situation.
“If you see a sign with a catastrophic apostrophe, send a kind note to the storekeeper,” urges SPOGG at nationalgrammarday.com. “If your local newscaster says ‘Between you and I,’ set him straight with a friendly e-mail.” Such corrections are seldom friendly, welcome or necessary. They are usually self-righteous, irritating and misinformed.
The policewoman behind National Grammar Day and SPOGG is Martha Brockenbrough, who serves as grammar guru for Microsoft’s Encarta Web site (encarta.msn.com), where she writes a column called “Grumpy Martha’s Guide to Grammar and Usage.”
There she urges readers to avoid using an adverb with a word like “unique” (too bad for our founding fathers, who dreamed of “a more perfect union”), and to avoid saying “decimate” unless you mean “reduce by one tenth” (if 10 percent of educated English speakers know and care about that distinction, I’ll give Grumpy Martha one tenth of my candy bar).
Brockenbrough reprimands pop stars for grammar gaffes in song lyrics, including Bryan Adams for singing “if she ever found out about you and I” (it should be “you and me,” she says) — even though that’s the best way to rhyme with the line before it: “She says her love for me could never die.” And she takes Elvis to task — is no one sacred? — for singing “I’m all shook up” instead of the proper “all shaken up.”
Raise your hand if you prefer this correction. That’s what I thought.
He goes easier on the malign stupidity of this kind of thing than I would (“self-righteous, irritating and misinformed” is a mere slap on the wrist), but I heartily applaud his attitude.
I found the column via Arnold Zwicky at Language Log; while Zwicky has good things to say about “the assumption that non-standard variants are unclear and therefore impede communication” and “the very odd view of ‘communication’, in which respecting and honoring ‘the rules of English’ is what permits people to convey meaning to others,” but he finishes up with what to me is a misguided excursus on how English suffers because “there’s essentially no one to speak with any authority for rational reform, no one to accord some sort of official status to variants”; he seems to think we need some sort of “official regulatory body” to guide us. The idea that bodies like the Académie française do anything other than try to enforce fading standards of “correctness” is so bizarre I can only suppose it stems from the kind of wishful thinking that made so many people fall for the technocratic ideal back in the 1930s. Freedom is a better guide than any “properly constituted” body of “experts.”