STERN: The grammarian’s manifesto

This column is going to be about grammar. Don’t get too excited, now.

Today I will discuss a national emergency — the complete deterioration of our ability to write well. Even at Yale I have experienced disdain for my love of grammar. When I told people of my interest in the freshman seminar “Grammatical Diversity in U.S. English,” I received blank or often disgusted stares in return. When I found a typo in a headline (a headline!) in an issue of Time magazine, many of my classmates told me, “So what? It’s just grammar.”

We have lost our way, but I am determined to correct that.

So I am writing to promulgate a new code of grammar, just as the great Strunk and White have done before me. I have been told grammar is a highly subjective field, but there are certainly some tenets about which we can all agree.

When writing a proper article or essay, make sure not a have a spelling errore, a punctuation error; or an stylistic error. Spell-check has been the law of the land for decades, so I truly don’t understand how people still make typos. It is awful, bad, terrible and horrible to be redundant. If I was using the imperfect subjunctive correctly, this sentence would not be here.

Contractions aren’t terrible in writing, but use them sparingly in academic essays. Other things that should be used sparingly: the word “things,” pretentious Latin words (like “datum” or “terminus”), semicolons and ellipses. And it is acceptable to start a sentence with a conjunction, but don’t go overboard.

As distinguished grammarian Winston Churchill told us, ending a sentence with a preposition is something “up with which I will not put.” I’m reasonably sure he was trying to be funny (in a, well, British way), but he makes two important points: ending a sentence with a preposition is never acceptable … except when it is. This same tricky rule applies to the passive voice.

I was appalled, saddened and angered during my very first shift on the News’ copy desk when I learned that this otherwise unparalleled newspaper does not employ the Oxford comma. I was gratified, though, when the copy desk taught me that the correct way to express that a Taser was used on someone is that he was “Tasered,” not “tased” (apparently because it’s a brand name, like Kleenex or Frisbee, which have achieved similar levels of ubiquity).

Above all, there’s a time and a place for everything. Would I use many contractions or informal sentences in an essay for English class? No. (I also would not use a one-word sentence.) But would I use them in an informal column? If you’ve been paying attention, then you already know. I hope I have made clear to you how to avoid many basic grammatical pitfalls. As Molière wrote, grammar “knows how to control even kings.”

At this point, many of you — fed up by my sad attempt to be both funny and educational — will ask, “What’s the point? Who cares? Does this really matter?”

In a word: yes. The argument can be made that we need grammar to be able to understand everyone around us, and a deterioration of grammar will start us down the truly slippery slope to idiolectal anarchy. Grammar governs the way we speak, so we couldn’t communicate without it. And that’s absolutely true.

But a more powerful argument can be made by appealing to people’s self-interest. It goes without saying that those who don’t understand proper grammar will do worse on English assignments. But did you know that, according to founder of National Grammar Day Martha Brockenbrough, “In one survey of hiring managers, 75 percent said it was worse for an applicant to have a spelling or grammar error on his application than for him to show up late or — get this — swear during an interview.” Even worse, “A utility company in Canada had to pay an extra $2.13 million in 2006 to lease power poles because someone stuck a comma in the wrong spot.” Grammar matters.

Inevitably, some will dismiss this column for its tone or apparently narrow message. But to those of you who will glean anything from it at all, please let it be this: For years our grammatical awareness has been declining. (Remember that typo in the Time magazine headline?) Let’s fix that, starting down a road not toward grammatical uniformity, but simply grammatical carefulness.

Scott Stern is a freshman in Branford College. Contact him at scott.stern@yale.edu.

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