Yippee! It’s National Grammar Day
You mean you didn’t know?!? Well, neither did I, till I was alerted on Twitter. Actually, it’s more an American than a British ‘thang’, started in 2008, by Martha Brockenbrough, founder of The Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar.
What are we celebrating?
Before you decide to run into the street dressed as a noun, abolish capitals forever like e.e. cummings, or construct grandiose, baroque Dickensian periods, it might be worth considering exactly what is meant by ‘grammar’. After all, it’s not a word that passes people’s lips too often. But those who do tend to use it usually think it is going to the dogs.
A technical definition
For linguists, grammar is, broadly speaking, ‘the whole system and structure of a language’. Specifically, grammar usually narrows down to the rules governing how you combine words to make meaningful sentences, and the inflections of words (e.g. is the past tense of dive dived or dove?, is the plural of consortium consortia or consortiums?).
But for lay people (non-linguists) who object to certain uses of language, the term grammar is just a ragbag into which they stuff any use of language which they object to (or should that be ‘to which they object’?).
What grammar is not
I sense that is true for some editors and copy editors, whose livelihood, after all, depends on following and applying certain rules—sometimes regardless of whether those rules have any validity.
The linguistic definition of grammar, in fact, excludes most of the things that raise people’s blood pressure:
None of them are (is?) grammar.
A non-technical definition
The idea that they come under the umbrella of grammar corresponds to a different dictionary definition: ‘a set of actual or presumed prescriptive notions about correct use of a language’.
This interpretation of grammar as being about prescription has been developed over centuries as a way of marking social and group identity; of separating in-groups from out-groups.
A quotation from 1892 about aitch-dropping shows how rigorous such demarcations could – and can – be:
A very fine young man, but evidently a nobody, inasmuch as he dropped his aitches and so on.
It is reflected in the name of a slightly fascistic current book title ‘I judge you when you use poor grammar’.
A healthy diet is good for you
To illustrate the arbitrary nature of such rules, let’s look at just one example of a use which – strangely for a British audience – can give some American copy editors the screaming habdabs. Is it ‘good grammar’ to talk of food, a diet, a lifestyle, being healthy? Many insist that the correct word in those contexts is healthful.
The reasoning behind this seems to be that if you define healthy as ‘in good health’ it must, by definition, apply only to people. A turnip cannot enjoy rude good health, and therefore another word is required to denote ‘conducive to good health’. Enter healthful.
In fact, though healthful is the older word, healthy has been used to mean ‘conducive to good health’ since the 16th century. The ban on it dates only to 1881, and has been passed down as an editorial meme ever since then.
The prescription totally ignores a productive feature of English: the transferred epithet, which makes it possible, for example, to apply the word sad not only to people who feel miserable, but also to the events which give them the blues in the first place.
The sage of Walden Pond
Back to grammar. As regards the second definition I mentioned, it’s worth quoting Thoreau, writing in 1862, when prescriptive grammar held sway:
When I read some of the rules for speaking and writing the English language correctly … I think –
Any fool can make a rule
And every fool will mind it.
When it comes to the broader definition of grammar as our whole language system, we should certainly be celebrating the wonderful ingenuity of the human brain in developing it in the first place, and the thousands of ways in which it enriches our experience.
About Jeremy Butterfield
Published author, wordsmith, copywriter, editor and lover of words.
I provide web copywriting, marketing copywriting, and editing services throughout England, especially in the following areas:
Bristol, Bath, Avon, Cheltenham, Gloucester, Devon, Somerset, and Dorset.
You can find me on Twitter @jembutterfield
It would be great to have some more likes on my Facebook page as well.