How Do We Love Thee, Grammar? Count the Ways on Grammar Day

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Grammar. It's a beautiful thing, or a thing that is beautiful. In its honor there is National Grammar Day, a day that grammarians have been celebrating since 2008, as instituted by Martha Brockenbrough, founder of the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar. She picked that particular date because it's a sentence: March forth. That day, Grammar Day, is today. 

So, you like words! You care about punctuation! Perhaps you're wondering, What in heaven's name should I do to honor such a day? It might be tempting to grab the nearest red pen and start correcting everything you see. To dig up your favorite mistakes and corrections from years past and review them yet again, and laugh. Or to keep a sharp eye out for misplaced apostrophes and commas, lesses when there should be fewers, yours instead of you'res—and to shout and point when you see anything that offends. There is a certain curmudgeonly joy in noting and fixing an error, as many a copy editor is aware, and each of us have pet peeves that we are happy to note and mock. This makes us feel like we're smart, and maybe like we're doing something good for society, teaching those supposed dimwits who didn't know the rules a lesson. But, no. This is not what we're supposed to do on Grammar Day at all. 

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Linguist and lexicographer Ben Zimmer was one of the judges for this year's Grammar Day Haiku Contest (stay tuned for the results, which will be announced later today by Mark Allen. Update: The winning haiku is here!). Zimmer told me he hopes Grammar Day can be about more just curmudgeonly nitpicking. "I have to admit that much of the public talk about grammar fills me with sorrow rather than joy, because so often the conversation is dominated by those clinging to outmoded or flat-out bogus rules, and expressing outrage at anyone who doesn't obey those rules," he says. "Cranky indignation becomes the dominant tone about grammatical issues when the 'peevologists' hold sway." (He points out, too, that certain peeves over spelling, punctuation, and word choice aren't about grammar at all. While such linguistic peeves certainly fall into the trade of a good copy editor, they're not technically grammatical. Whoops.)

Zimmer says, "Let's use National Grammar Day as an opportunity to think about what grammar actually is, and to be open to differing opinions about grammatical propriety. If grammar evokes anxiety or crankiness, relax for a day! Don't get hung up on the rise of singular 'they' or the decline of 'whom.' Don't fret about the correct placement of 'only,' or whether 'none' needs to take a singular verb. Instead, embrace the living, breathing grammar of English in all of its varieties."

Merriam-Webster lexicographer Kory Stamper is in agreement with Zimmer, and has posted a plea for sanity asking people not to turn the day into a free-for-all of railing on bad grammar, running around mocking others for their mistakes. She writes, "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... Vigilante peeving does nothing to actually educate people."

But it's fun! It's ... fun? It's fun enough that we spend much of the rest of our year discussing our so-called grammar peeves, loudly and emphatically. Perhaps following Stamper's suggestion could be more fun, if only for its uniqueness and karmic goodness: "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?" Commending people for what they do well instead of making fun of what they do poorly? Huh. That could be nice. 

And grammar itself is nice. After all, that we are able to communicate and make ourselves understood in a society is no small thing, Oxford commas or not. From grammar comes pretty much everything else. Stamper told me, "One of the things I adore about grammar and linguistics is that English has such a rich, rich history. Until you really delve into it, you don't appreciate what a wonderful, wondrous language it is. It's managed to survive so much--the Norman Conquest, the Viking invasions, the Great Vowel Shift, the 18th-century grammarians, its export to the wider world, and daytime television. You've got to love and admire anything that sturdy." Another word-minded individual, New Yorker editor Silvia Killingsworth, confessed, "I like to think of it as a day of recognition rather than a holiday," she says. "Just like Father's Day! Here is this great thing that is forever intertwined in our lives, and we should acknowledge what a wonderfully complex (sometimes frustrating, other times beautiful) but ultimately vital relationship we have with it."

If you're intent on getting peevish, turn on yourself. Think about your favorite rules, and why you use them. Do some googling for your own edification. Read up on the issues that fascinate you, on Language Log, for example. Zimmer suggests, "If you're feeling really adventurous, check out the Yale Grammatical Diversity Project, where you can get a full dose of multiple modals, positive 'anymore,' and other curiosities." Page through your favorite copy editing books and style guides. Or tweet or read some haiku! Wade into the fascinating subject of the grammar of EMC (electronically mediated communication, or the rules of texting), as Killingsworth recommended: "Is EMC a voice, a tone, a dialect, a vernacular?" Or, delve into a bit of David Foster Wallace. There's so much to consider, much of it virtually snark-free! Think about how you can best get your point across, and understand others, too, and how the way you do that is through this strange and beautiful, long-lasting thing we call grammar.

Stamper writes, "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." I, for one, am inspired to ease up for at least one day on the grammar shaming. We can go full-peeve on that misspelled bathroom sign tomorrow.

Photo by Daniel Silliman via Flickr.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.