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.
120 responses to “A Plea for Sanity this National (US) Grammar Day”
In honor of national grammar day, I’ve used grammar pretty much every day for a long, long time. Or since I’ve been speaking, at least, more or less, and mostly without thinking about it in the least, except for that miserable time when I was supposed to be learning the difference between accusative and dative in, um, German.
Someone nail this to a church door! Fabulous piece.
Um, there are no e’s in Piggly Wiggly. You, of all people? On this, of all days?
We had King Soopers where I grew up. That’s my excuse. I’m sticking with it, but fixing the typo.
Sorry to jump in late here, but you’re from Denver — ? King Soopers nall.
Born and bred!
That would be a spelling error as opposed to a grammar error.
Well done as always! For those who haven’t run into it, I want to mention Geoff Pullum’s phrase “nervous cluelessness”.
I once found out that a friend of mine was afraid to talk to me because she thought I was silently correcting everything she said. I don’t know where she got the idea, because I don’t remember ever correcting her or anyone else like that. It’s probably just that she knew that I was an editor and an English language major, and she assumed that we’re all like that.
The funny thing is that I couldn’t remember her ever saying something that might warrant a correction, even if I were some sort of grammar jerk. I felt bad and assured her that her speech was fine and that I wasn’t mentally editing her, but it’s unfortunate that she ever felt that way to begin with.
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only you could make the vagaries of english usage vaguely slatternly
i love it!
with gratitude from a celebrant
I very much enjoyed your article, though I disagree with most of it. I am an editor on the OED, and so subscribe to the “descriptive not prescriptive” ethos, but I am getting more and more annoyed by the desperation with which people who have some vague grasp of grammar are increasingly trying to make out that they don’t really care about it. Bollocks. Of course they do. Anyone who sees a grocer’s misplaced apostrophe and is fine with it is either ignorant or a liar. I realise it may be different in the States, where there may be non-native speakers at work, but here in England the worst offenders are chavvy native market traders from Essex or some other southern hell-hole. I am of merely average intelligence, I would guess, but have never had any trouble with grammar or anything like that, so why is it OK for others of similar background to fuck up?
That’s my two euro cents, anyway.
I think this is an interesting perspective. I don’t know if I’d say that it’s okay for people to make mistakes, whatever, man–rather, I’d say that people do make mistakes, and when they do it shouldn’t be treated like it’s the End of Civilization.
For instance: my dad, a smart guy, likes to signal that he has no preference between several proferred options by saying, “It’s indifferent to me.” This is a nonstandard–or maybe I can indulge and say “flat-out wrong”–use of “indifferent.” At one point, I (gently! Kindly!) said to him, “No, Dad: things cannot be indifferent to you. You can be indifferent. So say, ‘I’m indifferent’ or ‘It makes no difference to me’ instead.”
He looked at me and said, “Right, like I said, it’s indifferent to me.”
He was clearly not going to change his usage just because I told him it was wrong. At that point, my options were to froth at the mouth and think him a moron, or get over it. I opted to get over it.
Lots of the things, too, that people in the US think of as “wrong” are merely dialectal, and so they end up calling things “wrong” that are actually not wrong, just different.
Standard English is obviously important–after all, we call it “Standard English” for a reason. But I think there are ways to correct and educate others civilly and without making them feel like idiots. So maybe we agree to disagree here, and I can wonder what entry you’re working on in the OED.
Kory, I’ve always thought “[thing] is indifferent to [person]” is standard. The evidence seems to be that at the very least it was, though it’s now in decline. OED:
10 a. Not differing in estimation or felt importance; regarded as not mattering either way. to be indifferent to , to make no difference to, to be all the same to.
(The converse of sense A. 2: we are subjectively indifferent to things which are objectively indifferent to us.)
The quotes go from 1535 (Thomas More) to 1885, and inevitably include Shakespeare (from Julius Caesar: “I am arm’d, And dangers are to me indifferent”). And in Google Books I’ve found several examples in Austen and Dickens.
Google ngrams shows a clear decline, but there are still plenty of occurrences in respectable-looking sources if you click through to the most recent date band.
Maybe there is something to be said for refraining from holding someone in utter scorn when he makes a grammatical mistake, or even a “grammatical” mistake such as misspelling or mis-punctuating a word.
And, Jonjo, I am truly uncertain as to what you are getting at in the “vague grasp of grammar are increasingly” sentence. Can you describe this desperate behavior? Do you mean the ultra-descriptivist tone of some people who write about such things? (If so, why do you say “vague”?) I don’t think you are suggesting that some of those who misuse apostrophes are doing so intentionally to make a point. Or are you? My impression is that the vast majority of speakers of English do have a pretty good grasp of Standard English but are a little shaky and insecure on some fine points, especially those which schoolteachers and the peeververein tend to harp on–some of which really are bogus rules.
I don’t think this piece is suggesting that we shouldn’t care. The important point is that correcting a sign does nothing to advance the cause of good grammar, it’s just smug and tiresome.
In any case, knowing how to use an apostrophe correctly does not make you a grammar expert. I’m thoroughly bored of apostrophes. There are far more interesting topics in grammar – and most of these Apostrophe Batman types wouldn’t have a clue about most of the really interesting stuff.
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Thank you so much for this. I teach English as a second language and I think that people who speak English as a first language need to stop being pedantic and focus more on communication, not technicalities.
Just today, after reading your post, I was annoyed by a wrongheaded apostrophe on a hand-lettered sign glimpsed from the car, but I was able to smile and let it go, thinking of you.
Then I arrived at the supermarket, gathered my groceries, and had a chance to be annoyed (as always) by the “12 Items or Fewer” sign at the checkout. Grumble-grumble in my head, “you twisted snob, I bet you say ‘less’ for ‘fewer’ when your guard is down, hey what’s the opposite of ‘less’? what’s the opposite of ‘fewer”? grumble-grumble …”
Maybe next time I’ll make a concerted effort to let that one go, too. If I can.
Nah, you can keep your peeve–just keep it to yourself. 😉
“Maybe next time I’ll make a concerted effort to let that one go, too. If I can.”
Oh yeah? You and what army? Or will this effort be part of a solo concert?
Apologies for the jerkery, Ø. I couldn’t resist.
Oh, gee, now I’m so embarrassed. But I’ll try to pull myself together (can I say that?) and learn from the experience.
Yes! Victory is mine! (Ours?) 🙂
I must have absorbed the phrase “concerted effort” long ago and become attached to it without ever giving enough thought to its parts. Like the secretary who once said to my friend and me “let me make a mental note of that” and reached for her pencil. (Oh, how we laughed! Cruel, callous youth! Well, not to her face, I’m happy to say. But we did gleefully repeat the story.)
I didn’t know it was national grammar day. Perfect!
PS there’s an error in your sentence: “I won’t lie: there is a delicious schadenfreude in catching “a” expert in an error.” Did you do that one on purpose to see if we caught the expert in an error?
Nope, that one was entirely unintentional. But I’m flattered that you think I did it on purpose.
The moral of this story: eat lunch first, then write.
Thanks for the gentle tolerance reminder. I do tend to get all smug and rant-y when I catch grammatical errors. I probably have better things to rant about. I’m sure of it, actually.
Being nice > good spelling and grammar.
Grocers’ apostrophes. Just saying.
Ah, but not necessarily: some style guides say that when you are using a profession collectively in such phrases, you use ‘s and not s’. I think the Guardian and our style guide subscribe to this style, which is what seems more natural to me. Your mileage may vary, of course, which is totally fine.
I may be the prescriptive grammarian about whom your mother warned you who will defend the proper placement of the apostrophe to my last breath but oh my heck, I loved this post. You are too clever by half, young lady. Nicely done! 🙂
Great post! I was unaware that grammar had a “day!” It has made today funner!! LOL
I love the way you write and think – it is very inspiring and has caused me to consider pursuing such a path later in life. Thank you, Kory Stamper.
I enjoyed your article; although I disagree with your position.
I am constantly reminded of my art teacher in elementary school who quite condescendingly corrected me when I had just completed an art project. I shouted, “ I’m finished.” She sternly reproached me and said you’re not finished, otherwise you would be dead. She then informed me that I should have stated the more grammatical, “ I have finished”.
That was forty years ago and I am thankful for her edification, though perhaps her delivery was slightly supercilious.
I’ve gained my knowledge in grammar and vocabulary by reading and schooling, but mostly by people who corrected my mistakes. Although currently I’ve become irritated, and resentful at times, when people try to correct me on words or grammar, because at my age I think I know everything.
When I am corrected I immediately peruse all my dictionaries for their various usages hoping that one of them supports my mistake. Occasionally they do, and I’m gratified, not because I didn’t make an error, but because I learned more about the grammatical, orthographical or etymological usages of the word; therefore, I’ve been educated.
I would rather be corrected in a patronizing fashion than not be corrected at all.
Word! I admit most of the time I’m of the vigilante peeving persuasion, threatening (but never following through) to carry a bottle of White Out in my pocket so I can blot out all the misused apostrophes I see. Your message to me and mine is one big “LIGHTEN UP!” Love it! There probably are no permanent rules in the English language and what we frown on today may be completely accepted tomorrow. Or as my dad, who was an English professor, once said, “Proper English? There ain’t no such thing.”
Dude, it’s “Wite-Out”. Just sayin’.
Great post, Kory, and eminently quotable, as always. It articulates a lot of what I feel about NGD and similar occasions, and why I have mixed feelings about them. I’m happy to join in the fun and fascination, but I’d prefer not to see language being used as a scapegoat to criticise and belittle other people for trivial orthographic mistakes and natural dialectal variation.
Regarding your “friend” who visits stores to correct signs: I think that sadly a lot of people consider this to be noble behaviour and time well spent. And no wonder. People write books about travelling across America amending public signs (it may be a good book — I haven’t read it); Weird Al Jankovic videos himself adding “ly” unnecessarily to a “Drive Slow” sign; and the guy who created National Punctuation Day® recommends that people correct the owners of stores whose signs have mistakes, leave notes if they’re not there, and later congratulate themselves on this smug and unkind behaviour.
It all contributes to a popular misconception that love of language and grammar equates to obsessive, mean-spirited fussiness over the minutiae of what Arnold Zwicky calls “garmmra”. It’s a million miles away from what I consider love of same.
Right on, girl! Used to was, people said a lotta things an made mistakes without someone made em feel dumb. My advice? They shoulda stood in bed, insteada showin us how smart they are.
What is a hot mess, anyway?
I am so jargony. “Hot mess” means “a big mess,” and especially a mess that is so big, unusual, or spectacular that you can’t stop looking at or thinking about it. (I think.)
I think it can carry a large dose of negative response–as in OMG I can’t believe this “hot mess” does not see the disaster of his or her ways–as well as a positive response of appreciation such as your context here may imply. Either way, when I hear it applied on TV shows (E! news in particular) it seems to me you could read either way depending on the HM target.
In addition to the size, it brings to mind an actual hot mess, such as when soup boils over onto the stove. To clean it up immediately would be best, but the physical pain of burning skin could be an issue. Waiting for it to cool down is no good either, as then it will have congealed/hardened.
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Oh, the humanity. I was recently blocked by a Facebook grammarian because I defended the use of singular they. I wonder what he would have done if I had called Mother English a shifty whore. I think I’ll spend NGD gently teasing grammar pedants on Facebook–if I can find any.
Oh aye! Mother English ’tis a “shifty whore”! And Willy Shakespeare loved her bountiful charms! As do I . . .
I am a high school English teacher–38 years of it–and I read your post for National Grammar Day. You impressed me enough that I will be reading your posts from day to day until I get through most of them, I hope. I also put a link to your blog on my Facebook page, and I’ll recommend you to my wife as worth her time for online reading. Have a great day, and I look forward to reading you in the future. James Hart
I was unfamiliar with “hot mess”. (I’m just a cool up-to-date guy, never have been.) Judging by Urban Dictionary (for what it’s worth), I’d say that this a bit of jargon whose meaning is still in flux. There seems to be some resonance with your metaphor of the English language as a female character of a certain sort.
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Great article. I try to live by the “I know what you meant” rule. If feel like I know what the speaker/writer is trying to say, I see no reason to offer a correction. If a speaker’s message is skewed by an error to the point that I don’t feel like I completely understand, I just ask for clarification. As for written words, the context usually helps me decide. I look at language as an imperfect communication tool and I look at communication as a mutual responsibility between the speaker and listener or the writer and reader. If a person reads “tomato’s / 2 for a $1” and feels conflicted over the message, perhaps the apostrophe isn’t the only issue at play.
I didn’t find “asshattery” in m-w on-line dictionary!
I’m workin’ on it, I’m workin’ on it….
Reblogged this on The DMZ Linguist and commented:
” 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.”
Lovely post in an age of righteous snarkiness and declining courtesy.
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King Soopers! Kory, were you a Colorado gal?
Born and raised, REPRESENT.
Yay! Hope you get to come back for frequent visits to Paradise on Earth.
Bravo! I’m a writer and lover of many languages (I’m fluent in three). People who know me like to think of me as an ardent supporter of proper grammar, but my grammar-loving self does these things for myself. I enjoy rolling around in letters and words and the rules to which they subscribe, but I would not begin to hold anyone else to the standards I set for myself.
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Delightful article! I pressed it through my blog Newbie Writers Guide. I am a huge fan of dictionaries, language and the evolution of grammar, I like your attitude and feel that If I were struggling with a new language with non-standard rules, I’d appreciate a little slack from the native speakers.
The awesomeness of this post is truly a beautiful thing. I consider myself a half decent grammarian but I also know I suck at it (comma abuse, preposition abuse, etc).
This was a spectacular read. Only today did I learn about National Grammar Day. I cringe when friends use bad grammar and misspell words, but I only make an issue of it when I cannot actually determine what s/he is trying to say.
Could you please send your “friend” to “Toys R Us”?
Great piece! A friend of mine shared this on FB and mentioned me in a “please be nice” context, but I know he was joking, because the only time I correct someone is if he or she (sigh … English really needs a gender-neutral singular pronoun) asks something along the lines of “Is that how you spell that?” or “Did I say that right?” Because if they do, I assume they really want to know.
It’s not okay to be a jerk just because the other person is not using the language “properly,” and anyway, those improper usages? That’s (partially) how language evolves.
Haha … I just wrote “usages.” Oh my. 😀
“Usages” is totally cool: the plural isn’t as common as the singular, but it’s still in use: http://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=usages%2C+usage&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=15&smoothing=3&share=
As for the gender-neutral singular pronoun, you used it effortlessly in your first paragraph. It’s “they.” I know. Don’t yell at me, I just report the usage(s), not approve them. 🙂
Wait. Is it? Is that a thing now? Because if it is, for real, then … I just don’t even know what to do with myself.
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Kory, the usage notes are anything but boring. I spend most of my waking hours with my nose stuck in the MWDEU.
I have to confess that the very sly, dry humor of MWDEU combined with the historical survey of usage makes me very happy. (And before anyone asks, no, I didn’t write it. My wit is not sly nor dry.)
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Today’s the actual day, eh? Then in observance of the day I will observe that “I just report the usage(s), not approve them” sounds syntactically iffy to me. On the other hand, “I don’t approve the usage(s), just report them” would not
Sing it with me: Every party needs a pooper, every pooper needs a party….
Your edit is definitely clearer. And let’s be frank: this would not be the first time I’ve been syntactically iffy (along with other genera of “iffy”).
Sorry, I’m such a loser that I don’t even know the song. I’ll look it up later on YouTube.
I didn’t mean that to be an edit.
I was startled by the sentence, then I was thinking of writing a comment about that, but I didn’t want to be a party pooper or a mean-spirited carper or anything like that. But I was still thinking of writing about it anyway because let’s face it these peevish impulses are hard to control, even when their object is someone you have great respect and (if I may say it) affection for, and then I was thinking about it again but not looking at what you actually wrote and I was misremembering it as “I don’t approve the usage(s), just report them”, and I went what’s wrong with that? what was I thinking? and then I looked it up and saw again what you actually wrote and I was struck by the fact that I have a hard time explaining why what you wrote rings false while the other rings true: what’s the syntactic constraint that applies to one but not the other?
So really my comment was intended not primarily as a “gotcha” but more as a musing on grammar. (Of course, I mean grammar in the sense of the actual rules governing actual usage, not in the sense of “rules” that people carry around to hit each other over the head with.)
Ø, no need to explain! The point is, sometimes these things are a matter of personal preference.
At least we are not trying to define adverbs.
Some of have a strong internal need to explain. This compulsion may be inheritable: my son has it, too. It can make people into teachers, and it can also make them annoying.
Speaking of parts of speech (“defining adverbs”), how would you classify the things that look like comparative forms of adjectives in sentences like “The more things change, the more they stay the same”, “The longer you live, the older you get”, “The more I see of X, the more I want to Y”? This seems like an extreme case of the inadequacy of traditional parts of speech. Do you ever have to torment yourself with these things in your role at M-W?
Oh yes, these uses definitely play around the edges of the traditional eight parts of speech. I suppose that we’d consider the “longer” and “older” substantive uses of the comparative forms (“lexicographers are the damned“), so they get covered at the adjectives. The “mores” in “The more things change, the more they stay the same” we cover under the noun “more” (“I want a little more.”) I don’t know how I feel about that: sometimes I think that’s perfect, and other times I think it can’t possibly be right. And that’s why no dictionary should ever be written by one person, no matter how much of an amazing grammatical dynamo they are.
The traditional parts of speech are inadequate–seriously, try defining the word “adverb” or even “noun”–but that’s the prevailing paradigm for classifying words, so that’s the one that lexicographers use. We could jettison it for a paradigm that uses more parts of speech, but realistically no one but me is going to know or care what the difference between an adverbial conjunction and a conjunctive adverbial are. Why drive the sane mad?
@Kory: You said that you cover the “mores” in “The more things change, the more they stay the same” under the noun “more” (“I want a little more.”)
Really? I would have said that these “mores” are of the same type as the “longer” and the “older”. On the other hand, the “mores” in “The more you earn, the more you learn” could be nouns.
My reasoning is that, just as “long” and “old” are adjectives or adverbs in “how long did she live?” and “How old did she get?”, the “muches” are adjectives or adverbs in “How much did things change?” and “How much did they stay the same?” (or “How much the same did they stay?”). Whereas in “How much did he earn?” and “How much did he learn?” I hear the “muches” as direct objects rather than adverbs.
This is maybe over my head, but in phrases like this it seems to me it depends on which eye you squint.
Just close both eyes. It works for me.
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The MV Arctic Sea is a merchant vessel cargo ship which was involved in a mysterious hijacking in 2009. The Arctic Ocean, on the other hand, is the smallest and shallowest of the world’s major oceans.
Happy belated NGD.
Maybe the island is, in fact, somewhere inside the MV Arctic Sea! And I was definitely not anywhere near the coast of Sweden in July of 2009, nooooooo sir.
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The common grammar mistake that always catches my attention is the widespread practice of using “drapes” as a noun. The proper word is, of course, “draperies”. I was reading one of the Game of Thrones books and noticed “drapes” used as a noun. I had assumed the author was British, so it surprised me. I later found out he’s from New Jersey.
“Are your mother or father in?”
“They was, but they ain’t now.”
“They was? – They ain’t? – Where’s your grammar?
“She’s out too.”
“Are your mother or father in?”
“I think you mean ‘Is your mother or father in?’ Where’s your grammar?”
Yes, a wonderful post, indeed. But I think you understate the harm this “asshattery in the name of grammar” causes. So often, the person making the corrections is not some harmless drudge (I really wrote that without thinking of the title of the blog) but a person in a position of power. A power they are unfairly bolstering by claims to grammar superiority. They should be ridiculed and shamed at every opportunity: http://metaphorhacker.net/2012/08/pseudo-education-as-a-weapon-beyond-the-ridiculous-in-linguistic-prescriptivism.
Having said that, I’d also like to suggest that there is great variability in ways people acquire linguistic competence. Some people (as one commenter suggested) may indeed thrive on correction (within reasonable limits). I, for instance, think of myself as having been shamed into native-like English by school-induced insecurity about correctness. Every mistake I made, I analysed and looked up. I watched usage patterns like a hawk. And I still do (if now aided by a corpus). So much so that I ended up teaching grammar of English to native speakers – future teachers of their tongue (not “proper grammar”, just the rules that make it work). But obviously the far more common route is shaming > insecurity > unwillingness to speak in front of lexicographers.
I work and socialize with many people who frequently make grammar mistakes in conversation (and I’m sure I’ll make a few in this comment). Most of them are intelligent folk. Some of them speak English as their second (or third, or fourth) language, and some grew up without good English teachers and now work in fields (engineering, IT) where this fact isn’t particularly career-limiting. I struggle with how to react when I hear mistakes. Offering corrections is a complex business. It criticizes the speaker and brings the conversation to a halt. It seems rude. It’s not very conducive to communication, and isn’t communication the whole point of language? I’ll let red ink flow freely when editing on paper. In person, as long as I know what the person means, I’m more likely to keep my knee-jerk corrections to myself.
Bless your heart, you have a sweet soul. I love the rules, I love the poetry, but I love people more. Excellent essay.
Ponyboy, would you consider “pants” for “pantaloons” a grammar mistake? These things happen, and sometimes we go with the flow and sometimes we get stuck.
If I were you I’d just be glad this guy from NJ didn’t refer to a “window treatment” in the castle.
Hi there! Did you know that there exists The Split Infinitive Song? I know for sure because I wrote it. You can enjoy it here:
Let me know what you think.
Tony Levin is my alias (or the other way around, rather). No matter, please check it out.
I speak two foreign languages well, but I still make some simple mistakes at times in them. Usually a friend will just interject a one or two word correction and I then repeat it back, just to be sure. I am not offended, but grateful that the person has helped me. It only takes a second and is not intrusive to the conversation and we just go on. The same goes for when they correct my pronunciation.
Great article Kory.
Reading the comments, I know that Grammarians (should that be gramm-aryans?) will never rise up, organize an army and take over the planet. The infighting would split the group back into individuals.
To the commenters I would say this: Try to think of the bigger picture; learn linguistics and about the development of language; enjoy the beauty and marvel of language; understand that language is inherent in humans, and hence, everyone is speaking properly, not just in a manner that was decided upon by some Victorians as a class marker.
That said, I love the intricacies of grammar as much as the next DFW fan, and I can be pedantic when I think it’s necessary, but I much rather turn my efforts to having fun with my speech and my writing.
Learning a second (third, fourth, fifth, etc.) language will do nothing but open your mind to the fun that one can have with language. Take prepositions, for example, to which there are no pan-language rules. English may hang something ‘on’ the wall, but other languages will hang something ‘at’ or ‘to’ the wall.
So how about we get off our collective high-horses, and just start enjoying language, huh?
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There are many layers to the correcting/being an asshat that you describe. You haven’t mentioned joking and self-parody (“This is something up with which I will not put.”) Those being “corrected” need to lighten up just as much as those “correcting”. Sometimes it’s an in-joke that might even mildly flatter the one being “corrected”.
I’m not sure what your point is. If you correct your friend in a self-parodying way, maybe your friend will correctly divine your state of mind or maybe not; I think we can leave that to the two of you. If you correct a complete stranger and are then offended when they take offense even though you were not entirely serious, then I think I would hold you to be the asshat.
You speak of “layers”. I have sometimes felt that reformed peevers (myself included) can find themselves putting much the same fanatical energy into anti-peeving that they formerly put into peeving. But that’s not to say that the new position isn’t morally more defensible than the old.
In any case I think that Kory’s main point stands.
If Kory’s point is that some people take “grammar” (including many things that really should be called “style”) too seriously, yes it stands. She probably gets exposed to far too many such people because of her work.
There are also people who might have been traumatized by a bad teacher with mythical “rules”, and see that same nonsense wherever they look. Whatever the cause, I reserve the right to say “F**k ’em if they can’t take a joke.”
I wouldn’t express Kory’s point quite that way–you can take it seriously and still not be a bully about it–but I’m not trying to pick a fight.
Great post Kory,
I’m never tempted to correct apostrophe abuse in the wild, but I AM tempted, all the time, to ask grocer’s-apostrophe-users the question that really intrigues me about them:
It’s not at all uncommon to see a sign like this:
Apples : 50p each
Pears : 60p each
Orange’s: 55p each
I could understand, and tut quietly to myself, if people consistently misuse the apostrophe in plural forms – but whatever rule these people are following is *more complicated than the actual rule* ! What gives?
If this is an actual example, then I am tempted to guess that the apostrophe in “Orange’s” indicates that the added s adds a syllable.
Tutting quietly to oneself is always some kind of option, but it’s nice to have a place to vent I guess.
English is my second language. I learned to speak it, write it, and read it, without sitting through a single grammar lesson. Isn’t that strange?
I really enjoy reading your posts.
Two days ago, someone posted a comment on my blog (grieflessons.wordpress.com), then wrote back to change “lying” to “laying.” Of course, I had to fight my better nature and write back that he was actually right the first time. I then included this little poem, which I wrote in about a minute, to soften that pedantic blow. Yes, I really am a “reformed” English teacher, but I backslide now and then.
Old English teachers never die.
They just advise on “lay or lie?”
Driving friends who are grammatically hazy
Arriving a bit late to the party. All I can say is “Bravo!” This is the finest piece I’ve seen yet regarding grammar/language bullies. As someone who enjoys language in a playful way (think Ira Gershwin), I have respect for rules and customs, but I also recognize that they are not moral codes, just conventions to make life easier. But when people take these practical conventions and distort them into tyrannical rules, they begin to lose some of their practicality, don’t they? I wish there were Kory Stampers in all fields — arts, politics, science, etc. — to remind all of us, but particularly the hard-nosed practitioners, that rules and conventions are meant to be useful and to promote ideas, not to crush people and thought.
I stand by this principle, irregardless of what others may think. (That was for you, Ms. Stamper, since we know irregardless is indeed a word, albeit and incredibly grating one to some of us).
This piece is amazing!
I found you through Recommended Blogs for me and they couldn’t have been more right on the money. I LOVE your stuff! Some days I am a grammar nazi, some days I don’t care as much. The only person I correct without restraint is my 5 year old (and sometimes my husband). I look forward to reading more!
“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.” I was taught that there is no comma before “because.” Notice how everything before and after “because” is a complete sentence. This means there is no comma before “because.” This is like correcting a math mistake for an Einstein equation. So this is a natural high.
Very late to the party here, but thought you might like to know that my first encounters with a serious dictionary happened because of sibling rivalry.
My brother and I are very close in age (he’s older, but I was a bit quicker in learning vocabulary), so we would often fight over the “correct” meaning of a word.
At this point, my dad would haul out the big dictionary he used himself, and whoever said that a word “meant” whichever definition was the “first” definition “won” the fight against the person who chose the “second” — or a later listed meaning (but in the process, we were also asked to question whether or not our usage was correct in light of all of the definitions available, as well as whether or not a listed synonym would have been clearer, and whether or not we understood the “connotation” of the word we had chosen).
I internalized a lot of those early lessons and still consider them to be intensely valuable.
Later, however, as a teen, I discovered the wonders of slang as a way of hiding meaning from adults, and began to embrace words that would have opened me up to having my brother “win” the argument if we had still been fighting about language and grammar.
To me, these opposite experiences of learning linguistics are early examples of the importance of “teachable moments” at appropriate ages. I was learning both the use of “good” grammar and the power of subverting its rules — and it was mostly at the hands of people I trusted.
Now that I’m old and wise, lol, I would never correct an adult who used “lol” incorrectly, though, because at a certain point, those “teachable moments” turn into the clear asshattery you so eloquently describe, and turn the joy of communication/intentional obfuscation into just an excuse to believe that I’m better than the person I’m correcting — and there aren’t enough words in the English language to make me better than someone who simply doesn’t speak “my” language.
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