I love National Grammar Day. I also hate National Grammar Day. That may be surprising–after all, I’m a journeyman grammarian. I make my bread deciding whether a word is an attributive noun or adjective, parsing adverbial uses over conjunctive uses, writing those delightfully boring usage notes in your dictionary.
I love National Grammar Day for all the reasons you’d expect a massive nerd like me to love it: a chance to revel in and highlight the most-dear idiosyncrasies of my language and our feeble attempts to explain it. All you need to do is read through all the Grammar Day haiku that have been written, each falling like a cherry blossom in late Spring, to get in the spirit.
But I also hate National Grammar Day, because it ends up being less a celebration of the weirdness of English and more an annual conclave of the peeververein (as gentleman-copyeditor John E. McIntyre so eloquently calls them). 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.
Yes, I know, the grocer’s apostrophe is a weeping pustule on the shining face of English, and people who don’t know the difference between “less” and “fewer” should be marooned on a small, ice-covered island in the Arctic Sea. You, as a person of intelligence, are entitled to that opinion. I will defend to the death your right to think that “less” and “fewer” should only be used in very specific ways (even though history proves you wrong), and I will even agree that I don’t understand how the grocer’s apostrophe came to be (though apostrophes can be tricky, and we know all how weird English plurals can be). What I cannot defend, however, is asshattery in the name of grammar.
You may think you are some great Batman of Apostrophes, flitting through the dark aisles of the Piggly-Wiggly, bringing Truth and Justice to tormented signs everywhere! But in reality, you are a jerk who has defaced a sign that some poor kid, or some poor non-native English speaker, or some educated and beleaguered mom who is working her second job of the day, spent time making. It’s not as though they see your handiwork and fall to their knees praising John Dryden because now they see the error of their ways. No–all they see is that the manager is going to make them do the sign again. And they may not have the education to understand why you took a Sharpie to their “2 tomato’s / $1″ sign.
Vigilante peeving does nothing to actually educate people. What it does instead is to shame them and make them feel bad about how they speak, write, and even think. Believe me, you cannot shame a person into good grammar. When I was learning Latin, I had a professor who was frustrated that I couldn’t get all the noun declensions straight within the first week of class. So whenever we’d run across a noun, she’d call out, “Kory–what declension?” And I would stammer, and say “Uh um um, third?” Then she’d smirk, or sometimes laugh, and say, “Of course not,” then tell us what declension the noun was. But I never heard, because I was shrinking in shame while a dozen smug faces turned to me and beamed at my failure.
When you work for the dictionary, people mind their grammatical p’s and q’s around you out of fear. “Oh,” someone will titter, “I hope I don’t make any grammar mistakes when I’m talking to you!” I understand the impulse to say this–shit, I’m talking to an expert–but it casts a pall on the conversation, because I know the other person is worried I’m going to start smirking at some point during the conversation and they won’t know what they did wrong.
Conversely, when people take you to be an expert and you make a dumb mistake, you are called out as if you had perpetrated a war crime. I can’t tell you the times that I’ve answered an editorial email and made a dumb mistake– “it’s” for “its,” let’s say–and received a reply that is itself full of errors and misspellings but which essentially says, “OH MY GOD THEY LET YOU EDIT DICTIONARIES AND YOU DON’T KNOW THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN ITS AND IT’S? YOU’RE A MORON: LET ME SHO U IT.”
I won’t lie: there’s some delicious schadenfreude in catching an expert in an error. I recently stumbled across an On Language column written by William Safire, language maven, that uses “who” objectively when it should have been “whom,” and I just know that my face smeared into a big ol’ smirk, haha, William Safire, you doofus. Never mind that I would have used “who” that way. Never mind that most people would have used “who” that way.
English usage and grammar is a hot mess, to be frank: rules that contradict hundreds of years of use appear out of nowhere and for no discernible reason; spelling is off the hook; and even when something is nice and tidy (“sneak” entered English in 1594 and its past tense was “sneaked”) we complicate it needlessly (“snuck” showed up in the 1800s for no good reason and is now considered a standard past tense of “sneak” in the US). The reality is that many of the bits of grammar that we think of as wrong are actually just a matter of preference.
Remember, this National Grammar Day, that there are people all around you with varying degrees of knowledge of and appreciation for the intricacies of English. Instead of calling people out on March 4th for all the usages they get wrong, how about pointing out all the thing things that people–against all odds–get right? Can you correctly pronounce “rough,” “though,” “through,” and “thought”? Congratulations, you have just navigated the Great Vowel Shift. If I ask you to come up with synonyms of “ask” and you respond with “question” and “inquire,” congratulations: you have seamlessly navigated your way through 500 years of English history. Do you end sentences in prepositions? That is awesome, because that is a linguistic and historical tie back to Old English, the dyslexic-looking Germanic language that started this whole shebang almost 1500 years ago.
There is so much to celebrate about our language. English may be a shifty whore, but she’s our shifty whore. Please, this National Grammar Day, don’t turn her into a bully, too.