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A repentant sinner

When I was about 7 or 8 years old, I bore a family nickname. My mother and grandmother called me “Mr. Precise.” I was, even then, a stickler for correct grammar, as I understood it to be correct, and was generous in offering correction to others.

By high school and college, from humble beginnings as a teacher’s pet, I had swollen into a first-class language snob, with boundless scorn for all who failed to meet my exacting standards. As Steven Pinker remarks in The Language Instinct, “Humans are ingenious at sniffing out minor differences to figure out whom they should despise.”

And after that came graduate school in English, and it should be unnecessary to describe what a figure I cut there. If you think me an obnoxious twit today, be grateful that you didn’t encounter me when I was 24.

But the weight of years, parenthood and newspaper journalism have broken my spirit. Oh, I can still deride the bureaucratic obfuscation and self-congratulation that marks communication in business and government, and I have to leave the room when the local TV news comes on to avoid the threat of apoplexy, but I am way more relaxed about the way people talk or write in casual communication. I understand that some of the rules I was taught are not rules at all, and some of them are not even reliable guidelines. I’ve given way on host as a verb and any number of other shibboleths. I try to focus in my own writing and my editing on clarity and precision. Sloppiness in writing irritates, but not as a moral failing.

This is why I remain a little apprehensive about the impending National Grammar Day. I foresee the emergence from their burrows of the people Professor Pinker calls “the language mavens,” the strident, self-appointed guardians of language and judges of everyone else’s speech and prose. This priggishness will do no good.

We’re well into Lent, the season of self-examination and rueful recognition. I’d suggest that the best thing to do on National Grammar Day is to reflect on our own use of the language, to try to use words more carefully ourselves and to cut everyone else a little slack.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 3:31 PM | | Comments (11)
        

Comments

I, too, have a history of latching onto peoples' grammatical foibles and beating them senseless with corrections. Since running my writers critique group, however, I have learned a great deal of patience in regards others use of language and the inevitability that in such a small group, I'm probably the only one who's going to pick up on the fact that 'thankfully' to begin a sentence isn't very productive in a story.

I shall take your advice, Mr. McIntyre the Humanitarian and improve upon my own feeble words before striking fear into others for their own misuses.

Would it be too much if I spend Natl. Grammar Day visiting all the restaurants in town (San Francisco has a lot) correcting the spelling of Caesar salad on menus?

I'm hoping National Grammar Day will cause closet language mavens to self-identify in public. Once they are found, I will pick apart their false rules one by one and then forgive them for being wrong about being unsupportably righteous. Then, we'll have cake and ice cream before the fireworks show.

You can pad around town with the expectation of correcting menus and signs and people's pronunciations as much as you like. This is America.

What you should not expect is gratitude.

Dear Mr. Grammar Person,

Where do you come down on the misuse of the phrase "begs the question"? It's one of my biggest pet peeves and his inspired me to dash off several scolding e-mails to offenders. That raises the question, however, of whether I'm tilting at windmills.

When I'm editing, I always rephrase the misused "begs the question." It doesn't take a lot of effort to substitute "prompts" for "begs." There are still writers, though perhaps not many for daily newspapers, who use "beg the question" in the technical sense, and I usually think that it's a good idea to restrict technical terms to technical senses.

This comment is about words vs. grammar. Words have meaning and there is an unusual assault targeting words like.. wicked. Wicked means awful, atrocious, despicable, evil. Yet in terms of slang it means wonderful, the actual opposite of it's true meaning. I find this frightfully corrosive in society. When words cease to have true meaning, we end up with chaos.

In keeping with a perpetual celebration of the splendor that is English, I shall thoroughly ignore National Grammar Day.

Well, that just takes ALL the fun out of NGD!

I have finally learned, however, that much of what I thought was Rule is actually Style. I, too, am more relaxed about usage now... sometimes.

John: You have become way too relaxed about using "way" as a synonymn for "far." Perhaps the McIntyre mellowing has gone far enough. We mortals still need standards.

John, I sympathize with your feelings about TV news. When my husband and I were eating breakfast at the hotel in St. Pete this week, we heard an anchor on Headline News use the phrase "cool beans" and nearly choked on our coffee.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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