Good grammar doesn't entitle you to be smug

On the eve of National Grammar Day, I come before you with a caution: grammar isn't everything.

Oh, probably you knew that at some level. You understood that it is possible for a text to be spanking clean as far as spelling, punctuation, grammar, usage, and yes, even AP style if you swing that way, and still be defective. Factually inaccurate. Dishonest. Unclear. Given to mixed or inapt metaphors, Pretentious.

You know, if you are an editor, that your scrupulous attention to spelling, punctuation, grammar, usage, and house style is, if the larger questions are allowed to go unaddressed, essentially an exercise in what is inelegantly called turd polishing.

Still, as you gather the tattered remnants of your dignity around yourself, you say that at least you got the grammar right. You're good at grammar, you're good enough, you're smart enough, and, doggone it, people respect you.

I know that affirmation; I was an English major myself.

But best not get cocky. The grammar you know may not be as reliable as you imagine. I never tire of quoting Henry Hitchings's The Language Wars: "The history of prescriptions about English ... is in part a history of bogus rules, superstitions, half-baked logic, groaningly unhelpful lists, baffling abstract statements, false classifications, contemptuous insiderism and educational malfeasance." Much of that schoolroom grammar you learned is of little consequence outside the schoolroom. 

I have already been recommending Kory Stamper's "Plea for Sanity" on Grammar Day. Click and read. If you've already read it, click and read again.

And you will also want to heed Dennis Baron's reminder atThe Web of Language: "Everybody does want to be correct, but nobody wants to be corrected."

So instead of marinating in your own self-regard on National Grammar Day, give the occasion some point. Defenestrate some of that rubbish about usage you were taught. Take a little time to learn some things about all those Englishes out there, now that you are aware that there is no One True English. It's exhilarating to learn new things.

And make it a festive day. Too late today to enter Editor Mark's grammar haiku competition, but you can look for the winning entries tomorrow. Grammar Girl lists some of the activities for the day. You're certainly on tenterhooks as you await the exciting conclusion of Grammarnoir 5: The Shame of the Prose, which will be published tomorrow morning. And don't neglect to treat yourself to a grammartini. Chin-chin.


Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad