By Dennis Baron
March 4 is National Grammar Day. According to its sponsor, the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar (SPOGG, they call themselves, though between you and me, it’s not the sort of acronym to roll trippingly off the tongue), National Grammar Day is “an imperative . . . . to speak well, write well, and help others do the same!”
The National Grammar Day website is full of imperatives about correct punctuation, pronoun use, and dangling participles. In the spirit of good sportsmanship, it points out an error in the Olympic theme song, “I believe.” The song contains the phrase the power of you and I (that’s a common idiom in English, even in Canada, plus it rhymes with fly in the previous line of the song), but SPOGG would prefer you and me. There’s even a link to vote for your favorite Schoolhouse Rock grammar episode (hint: unless you prefer grammar rules that have nothing to do with the language people actually speak, don’t pick “A Noun is the Name of a Person, Place, or Thing“).
The National Grammar Day home page has even got its own grammar song available for download, though it’s of less than Olympic quality, and the site also boasts a letter of support from former Pres. George W. Bush, apparently SPOGG’s poster child for good grammar, who writes that “National Grammar Day . . . can help Americans prepare for the challenges ahead.” To be sure, Bush wrote that before the grammar bubble burst. The growing number of grammarians filing first-time unemployment claims suggests that the former president was wrong about this, as he was about most things.
You might be tempted to ask why National Grammar Day is different from all other days (it’s O.K. to ask that, so long as you don’t want to know why it’s very unique). National Grammar Day is a day to set aside everyday English and follow special rules that have nothing to do with how people actually talk or write. On all other days, we split our infinitives and start sentences with and and but. But on National Grammar day, we avoid but altogether and utter no verbs at all. On all other days we use like for as. On National Grammar Day, we like nobody else’s grammar all day long. On all other days, we use hopefully as a sentence adverbial. On National Grammar Day, we are no longer sanguine about anyone’s ability to speak or write correctly, and we only expect the worst. Or we expect only the worst.
Over the course of the year there are all sorts of language-themed holidays: National Handwriting Day, National Writing Day, Dictionary Day, English Language Day, Mother Language Day, even, comma, open quotes “Punctuation Day period close quotes.” In England they celebrate Punctuation Day with “close quotes period”. And now, since 2008, we’ve had National Grammar Day as well.
You’d think that all this celebration of language would have some discernible effect. Like people following all the advice to be found on the websites devoted to these special days. At least we should see more handwritten definitions of English words, with lots of semicolons and dashes thrown in, all carefully diagrammed with mistakes corrected in red by licensed grammarians. Correction — on National Grammar Day one must avoid the second person and be careful to always write, into which lots of commas have been thrown, so as not to have a preposition anywhere near the end of anything. And one would think there’d be more special grammar greeting cards and presents to exchange.
Instead, National Grammar Day comes and goes unnoticed. Except for a few purists who religiously send their lists of pet peeves to Santa Clause, most people could care less.
It’s not that we don’t value good English. Quite the opposite, in fact. Everybody I meet avoids sentence-final prepositions because they bring bad luck. They don’t split infinitives unless no one’s looking. And as for the passive voice, they’re certain it too must be avoided — it’s just that they’re not exactly sure what the passive voice is, or how it’s different from the past tense. And they all want to know where the commas in the sentence go.
In fact, because people know I write a lot about language, they ask me what’s correct and incorrect about their English, not just on National Grammar Day, but all the time. Unfortunately, when I answer their questions, when I tell them that, when it comes to putting a preposition at the end of a sentence, sometimes you have to, or when I remind them of Star Trek’s well-known imperative to boldly go where no one has gone before, when I tell them that the passive might actually be preferred in certain utterances, or that they could get away with fewer commas if they wanted to, they look at me like I’m talking about Martian, not English.
“You’re not the boss of me,” they say. Or, “It’s a free country, no one tells me what to do.” Then they go off in a huff, doing whatever they want to so far as language is concerned. Because they’re right, it is a free country. However, their constant and predictable rejection of expert advice is how I discovered Baron’s First Law of English Usage, which I offer here as my own personal contribution to National Grammar Day: When it comes to English, everybody wants to be correct, but nobody wants to be corrected.
So if you have a burning question to ask about English grammar, or you want to complain about something you think is incorrect, feel free to leave a comment. Just don’t be surprised if my response isn’t what you were hoping for.
Dennis Baron is Professor of English and Linguistics at the University of Illinois. His book, A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution, looks at the evolution of communication technology, from pencils to pixels. You can view his previous OUPblog posts here or read more on his personal site, The Web of Language, where this article originally appeared. Until next time, keep up with Professor Baron on Twitter: @DrGrammar.