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You are what you speak

Dan Rodricks has kindly forwarded to me the e-mails that people sent in to Midday at WYPR-FM on Wednesday, National Grammar Day, when Martha Brockenbrough and I were guests. I will be responding to them in forthcoming posts on this blog.

But first, I want to make clear, again, what my project is. Descriptivists, like linguists and lexicographers, exercise a writ that covers the whole span of language, spoken and written, formal and informal. They describe what they find, and they find many interesting things. Prescriptivists, particularly of the hard-shell variety, want to tell you how to speak and write. Some of them worry about the supposed decline of English, which has been a recurring source of alarm for at least five centuries.

I am a moderate prescriptivist. I seek to distinguish rules from conventions (Making a subject and a verb agree is a rule; omitting a comma between a subject and a verb is a convention, and one that indulged the opposite practice in the 18th century). Moreover, schoolchildren have been taught many “rules” — the prohibition on the split infinitive or the preposition at the end of a sentence — that have no foundation in idiomatic English, and bad teaching must be countered. People were once told in advertising that smoking would help you keep your weight down — “Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet” — and have since had to unlearn that.

I am also an editor, so I don’t much care how you talk, or how you write in e-mail or text messages. My bailiwick is a particular dialect of the language, most frequently identified as “formal written English.” Texts in the ranges of that dialect concern me, and I seek to make them accurate, clear to the reader, observant of reasonable conventions, and, when possible, elegant in expression.

Some readers who write to me privately, like some of the listeners who called in to Dan’s show, are hesitant about grammar, which they have been trained to see as forbiddingly difficult and arcane. That is not so. If you speak English and are comprehensible to other speakers of English, you have English grammar in your head. What you may not have is a firm grip on the terminology to describe its technical details.

That need not worry you too much. After all, you may not have at your command the terminology for the technical processes of nutrition, but you are able to choose food, consume it and survive. If you want to be healthy, it might be to your advantage to learn some of those technicalities. If you want to write more effectively, you may need to master some technicalities in that area.

But if you want to eat potato chips, I have no intention of stopping you. Or of forgoing them myself.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 1:22 PM | | Comments (10)
        

Comments

I quite agree about the importance of making a subject and verb agree. However, it is not always so clear how to do this.

Take the recent example from an NPR story: "90% of Russians believes..." This is like saying "90% of Russians is overweight".

This just doesn't sound right to me. But NPR is at least consistent: in introducing the story Carl Kassel said "A majority of Russians believes...". Clearly, NPR feels the subject in these instances is singular. I think the plural verb sounds better.

What do you think?

Majority is often a singular, as in a majority has decided, but when the word is followed by a prepositional phrase with a plural object, the verb is commonly treated as a plual in both British and American english: a majority of voters have decided. A number of constructions work the same way. The NPR examples above indicate a misunderstanding of the principle of synesis, in which meaning can trump the strictest application of subject-verb agreement.

Hey,
Laura Lee says you are giving away potato chips over here in the Parlor.

What, no dip?

What, no dip?

Some times it may be easy, but best not to go there.

(BTW: I still think anyone ending a sentence with at sound ignorant, beyond words. It's not the preposition thing, it's the redundancy: 'where are you? asks a complete question; 'where are you at?' (which probably should have a comma, but that's beyond the buffoons who say it) asks the question twice.

That would probably make me a prescriptivist, then.

I tend to call the 'rules' on splitting infinitives and prepositions at the ends of sentences "grammar teacher rules" rather than rules of grammar. The one on prepositions can make for some incredibly convoluted sentences.

A favorite quote; "Writing has laws of perspective, of light and shade just as painting does, or music. If you are born knowing them, fine. If not, learn them. Then rearrange the rules to suit yourself." -Capote

Faced with the unenviable task of teaching Grammar to 8th Graders, I do at least tell them they can end sentences with prepositions if they wish, and that they can split their fill of infinitives.

Then other teachers tell them precisely the opposite and I have to take the wishy-washy stance of "do what the teacher whose classroom you are in tells you, but understand that those 'rules' are their personal preference and not actual rules for English grammar."

I also try to make them see that they know, instinctively, many of the things I am trying to teach them, and all they are really learning are technical terms to describe their instincts.

That usually gets quite a few blank looks.

Consider, Lastbestangryman, the misinformation or inept teaching to which they are being subjected in math, or history, as well as English. But there's every possibility that a sentient minority will recognize and appreciate what you are doing for their benefit.

You might also think of your advice to their conduct in other classes less as wishy-washiness than realpolitik.

I still think anyone ending a sentence with at sound ignorant, beyond words

"Where you at, Hon?" will never stop making my skin crawl.

But if you want to eat potato chips, I have no intention of stopping you. Or of forgoing them myself.

I love grammatical junk food!

Of course I would never serve it at a formal banquet, but I love it anyway. In front of the TV on Saturday night, in my PJ's? Pass the chips!


Faced with the unenviable task of teaching Grammar to 8th Graders . . . Then other teachers tell them precisely the opposite and I have to take the wishy-washy stance of "do what the teacher whose classroom you are in tells you, but understand that those 'rules' are their personal preference and not actual rules for English grammar."

As the mother of a now-9th-grader, I say this: It is worthwhile for kids to learn that lesson--follow the rules of the classroom in which you find yourself. I congratulate you, Lastbestangryman, on teaching your students on many levels at once. That is the BEST of teaching.

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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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