Mar 042018

Today is National Grammar Day in the United States. It was begun in 2008 by Martha Brockenbrough, author of Things That Make Us [Sic] (2008) and founder of the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar (SPOGG). Right from the start I will express my ambivalence about this day. Certainly, I value good grammar. Grammar mistakes are not just wrong in a technical or aesthetic sense, they can obscure or change meaning. Some common mistakes always set my teeth on edge, such as, incorrect placement of the apostrophe of possession, using “of” instead of “have” in verbal inflections (“I should of thought before I acted”), and phrases that use inappropriate prepositions, most notably, “centered around” and “based “off” (both need “on” to make sense). I do, however, exercise some restraint in commenting on other people’s mistakes, particularly on social media, but also in emails. I would rather have some communication, even if full of grammar mistakes, than none.

When I was a university professor I began in that career by correcting every grammar and spelling error in every paper I received. It was a monumental task, and I doubt that my efforts did much to change my students’ habits. Judging by the posts of some of them on Facebook these days, they have improved very little. Over the years I mellowed. Their grammar did not improve, but I preferred to spend my time railing against their inability to put together a decent argument, rather than worrying about subject-verb agreement or misplaced commas. It was a case of picking my battles. Make no mistake. If your application for a job comes across my desk and it has grammar errors in it, it goes straight in the waste paper basket. That is a case of lack of professional competence. I can afford to cut my friends and students some slack, mainly because not a great deal hangs on whether they can construct a sentence properly or not. My last (proper) girlfriend made errors in grammar left, right, and center in her emails. I could have pointed them out to her and I would have wound up sleeping on the couch. She’s been gone a long time now, and it was not grammar that did the relationship in.

Not only is pedantry misplaced in ordinary writing among friends, it is also an impediment to clear writing. When the dust has settled, we need our writing to accessible, and if strict grammar rules get in the way they need to be broken. This website is worth taking a look at on this day: . Among other things you will find this little quiz. Which of these statements is correct?

  1. A run-on sentence is a really long sentence.
  2. You shouldn’t start a sentence with the word “however.”
  3. “Irregardless” is not a word.
  4. There is only one way to write the possessive form of a word that ends in “s.”
  5. Passive voice is always wrong.
  6. “I.e.” and “e.g.” mean the same thing.
  7. You use “a” before words that start with consonants and “an” before words that start with vowels.
  8. It’s incorrect to answer the question “How are you?” with the statement “I’m good.”
  9. You shouldn’t split infinitives.
  10. You shouldn’t end a sentence with a preposition.

The answers are on the site. Some may surprise you.

As a writer I have to cope with the fact that different presses have different rules. For British presses I have to use British English spelling and grammar, for U.S. presses I have to follow their rules. Furthermore, within each country the rules can vary. It is not worth fighting about. My practices vary according to the needs of presses, and in common discourse I am a mongrel. Getting all high and mighty about one system over another is, in a word, stupid.

Cookbooks have to follow strict guidelines with their recipes these days, and the sole purpose of these rules is clarity. I am not much of a stickler here either because recipes are no more than suggestions most of the time. When it comes to baking there is not much room to maneuver, but for most dishes you can play around a great deal with quantities and ingredients. I always add more herbs and spices than recipes call for, primarily because I never cook with salt, but also because I like bold flavors. I understand that presses want kitchen-tested recipes in the cookbooks they publish, and there are grammar issues at stake. Take these two different ingredient listings:

2 cups chopped grapes

2 cups grapes, chopped

Word order and a comma make a big difference. In the first listing you chop the grapes first, then measure them. In the second listing you measure the grapes whole, then chop them. There will be more grapes in the first listing than in the second.