Tuesday, March 4, 2008

National (Prescriptive) Grammar Day

Thanks to Linden, who reminded me that today is National Grammar Day, as declared by the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar and MSN Encarta.

As you can tell from the title of this post, though, I think that National Grammar Day is a misnomer, since the point of National Grammar Day, according to the website, is to: "Speak well! Write well! And on March 4, march forth and spread the word. If you see a sign with a catastrophic apostrophe, send a kind note to the storekeeper. If your local newscaster says 'Between you and I,' set him straight with a friendly e-mail."

So it's not actually about grammar, it's about telling people what grammar to use.

A problem that I have with many prescriptivists is how they seem to believe that you cannot communicate unless you are following their rules. Here's an example from the NGD website: "If we don't respect and honor the rules of English, we lose our ability to communicate clearly and well." Put simply, I think that the implication that we do not communicate well if we don't follow prescriptive rules is basically baloney.

Ambiguity is a feature of all human language. Many linguists (such as the chair of the department of linguistics that I work in) would argue that ambiguity is actually what gives language its power. It is not necessarily something to be feared. This is probably one of the reasons why languages like Lojban haven't caught on; we don't need them. For example, the Encarta feature on the topic includes the following statement: "I shaved my head when I was 17. I sold it for $500 to a famous Broadway wigmaker." This statement is supposed to be ambiguous because it supposedly sounds like the person is saying she sold her head instead of her hair. But in normal conversation no reasonable person would believe that she sold her head instead of her hair, so there really is no ambiguity.

Another implication I resent in prescriptive statements like the ones above is that it's only by following THOSE rules that one can be the most precise. An excellent example of how this is not true is the well-known "habitual be", a feature of the dialect called African American Vernacular English (AAVE, also known as Ebonics). In AAVE, the following sentences have different meanings:

He be happy.
He is happy.

The first sentence refers to the person's general personality, while the second refers to the person's current condition. This is a distinction that standard English rules do not make, since there the same two meanings are expressed in standard English with the same construction:

He is happy.
He is happy.

Therefore, we have an example where a non-standard dialect is actually more precise than the standard. So, if precision is your goal, standard English is not the ideal way to go, apparently.

Don't get me wrong. As a teacher of writing I believe that "good" grammar is important to writing, but only in a sociolinguistic sense: using the grammar rules that are considered to be prestigious will get you more respect and prestige. The problem is that many people (even ardent prescriptivists) don't have a good enough understanding of grammar to understand when rules truly should or shouldn't apply. Thus we get weird rules like "Don't start a sentence with because," or "Don't use too many gerunds." (A professor I had actually used to use that one.) And when people ask why, the answer might just be, "Because I said so." ;) (Thankfully, Encarta included this article about grammar errors that aren't.)

I agree that there is some merit to the claim that errors in grammar can make language difficult to understand. In the great majority of cases, though, the types of grammar errors addressed in prescriptive grammar rules are not the kinds that would cause true misunderstanding. Compare the following two examples:

I sold it for $500 to a famous Broadway wigmaker.
I it sold $500 for a famous Broadway wigmaker to.

There is no prescriptive grammar rule that says, for example, "Put the preposition at the beginning of the prepositional phrase before its object," but the sentence that follows this rule is much more understandable than its counterpart.

So Happy National Grammar Day, but instead of encouraging you to offend your friends and neighbors by correcting their grammar, making them feel that they're not listening to you, I instead encourage you to truly study grammar, the amazing patterns of morphosyntax as they are embedded in their full semantic and pragmatic contexts. And, if you really feel the need to correct people, then you'll really know what you're talking about.

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