Yesterday, March 4, marked the first “National Grammar Day,” created by the nit-picking pedants of the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar and sponsored by Microsoft’s Encarta. According to NationalGrammarDay.com, “If we don’t respect and honor the rules of English … we invite mayhem, misery, madness, and inevitably even more bad things that start with letters other than M.” Lynne Truss, of “Eats, Shoot & Leaves” fame, would be proud.
But linguistic scholasticism isn’t limited to March. It happens all year round and is a popular pastime, judging by the nearly quarter-million members of the Facebook group “I judge you when you use poor grammar.” Here, members share their favorite photos of orgiastic orthographics or catastrophic apostrophics, voice their pet peeves on the wall and in general engage in a giant virtual circle-jerk about all things grammatical.
My problem with this group isn’t so much its purported goal of encouraging proper English; rather, what is troubling is its appeal to one of the baser aspects of human nature: judgmental, hypercritical elitism. In what I suspect is only a three-quarters-joking manner, the group’s description states, “Our condescension and humiliation will eventually cause them [those who use improper grammar] to change their wicked ways.”
But change them to what? We have no Academie Americaine. If you want to quickly resolve a grammatical debate, what authority can you appeal to? As William Zinsser once said, “We have no king to establish the King’s English; we have only the President’s English, which we don’t want.”
I’m always inclined to cite the Oxford English Dictionary, which calls itself “the definitive record of the English language.” And much to the disappointment of our Facebook friends, in the OED we find that “good” is an adverb, “irregardless” is a word, “whom” is dead and one definition of “less” is “fewer.”
Besides, leading the life of a nit-picker isn’t very fun. It’s sort of like being a spy: At every moment, you have to carefully watch what you say lest a slip of the tongue reveal you as the fraud you are. Which will inevitably happen: According to Hartman’s law of prescriptivist retaliation, “Any article or statement about correct grammar, punctuation, or spelling is bound to contain at least one eror.”
Incidentally, the word “glamour” is actually derived from the word “grammar,” though one wouldn’t know it by listening to today’s celebrities. For example, take the Justin Timberlake song “What Goes Around, Comes Around,” which includes the following line, sure to horrify grammarians everywhere: “When you cheated girl / My heart bleeded girl.” In fact, the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar considered this fanciful past tense egregious enough to warrant inclusion in a packet of grammar exercises titled “Correct the Celebrity,” to be found on the National Grammar Day Web site.
In defense of Mr. Timberlake, he is not the first to have used this non-standard past-tense formation. And though I feel a bit guilty comparing the lyrics of a pop song to classical poetry, those of you who have studied Latin are doubtless aware of the often-tortured syntax and vocabulary of the ancient literati. Words are stretched or compressed to fit the meter, and verb conjugations are sometimes simply fabricated.
Sadly, while the National Grammar Day Web site specifically mentions this Facebook group, it fails to make any mention of the fascinating linguistics blog “Language Log” (languagelog.com), which is written by (God forbid) actual linguists, as opposed to random misanthropes on the Internet. Frankly, I’m surprised that the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar would put aside its elitism long enough to make the comment that the Facebook group’s “238,000 members … can’t be wrong.” Why, I just googled “rediculous” and came up with 2.7 million results. 2.7 million people can’t be wrong.
By the way, for those of you keeping score at home, this column contains four sentences that begin with conjunctions, one that ends in a preposition, two split infinitives, a lonely subordinate clause and two made-up nouns. Try and keep your red pens holstered.
Gabriel Michael is a graduate student at the Divinity School. His column runs on alternate Wednesdays.