March 4th is National Grammar Day, time to remember that language, like the earth, IS NOT FLAT.
On National Grammar Day, it’s traditional to pick up a red marker and go forth (it’s March 4th, get it?) to correct other people’s grammar, deleting those unnecessary apostrophe’s and turning ‘10 items or less’ into ‘fewer’ at the grocery checkout. But that would be wrong. Because language, like the earth, is not flat.
In fact, grammar has very little to do with punctuation or with choosing between less and fewer, and more to do with describing how people use language when they speak and write. Focusing on punctuation reflects a kind of flat-earth grammar despite the fact that we've known for a long time that language, like the planet, is three dimensional. And a compulsion to correct other people’s usage--for example, by saying things like "don't use they as a singular"--reflects a grammar that I call faith-based because it requires a belief in unverifiable rules that have no rational basis, and because those who lay out the rules for their believers to follow don’t actually practice what they preach: listen long enough to a usage guru and they will commit the very sins that they condemn in your usage.
Bishop Robert Lowth, the most popular of the many eighteenth-century English grammarians, a man who may have thought the world was round but knew grammar was either right or wrong, this language moralist who had no problem condemning the most minor errors of the best English writers, including the translators of the Bible, was also someone who didn’t go around correcting other people's commas and apostrophes, because to him English punctuation was imperfect, full of exceptions, and best “left to the judgement and taste of the writer” (A short introduction to English grammar, London: 1762, p. 155).
Lowth noted that double negatives make an affirmative in the 1763 edition of his Grammar, but he didn't weigh in on less v. fewer, or splitting infinitives, though many of his flat-earth contemporaries condemned such "errors" mercilessly. Despite centuries of faith-based “thou-shalt-nots” about English usage, few people today care about less and fewer, sentence-final prepositions, or the split infinitive, so the less said about that on National Grammar Day, the better. Or should I have said fewer?
I’m not denying that conventions of punctuation and usage exist, and I do agree that they are useful. But when people argue that a comma can make the difference between life and death using the ridiculous comparison of "Let's eat grandpa" with "Let's eat, grandpa," I call bullshit. No one in their right mind interprets the comma-free version as a call to cannibalism, just as no one interprets the double negative "I don't got no money" as an assertion that the speaker is rolling in dough, because two minuses make a plus. That's not always true in arithmetic (two negatives, multiplied, equal a positive, but two negatives added make for an even greater negative), and it's rarely true in language. Even the formal double negative is not a positive: a not unkind remark is hardly a compliment, it's just neutral with mildly negative connotations.
Yes, conventionality is important, and usage rules impact our linguistic behavior, but turning grammar into a set of punctuation and usage rules, to be followed or else, is reductive. It ignores that fact that grammar is not just the art of being correct. It’s also the set of complex and nuanced and ever-changing ways we use language when we speak and write, informally as well as formally, carefully and spontaneously, in multiple contexts, across time and space and social groups.
And yet, as I’ve said before, grammar, and its expression on National Grammar Day, tends to be a mix of flat-earth grammar and faith-based grammar, a deadly combo of obsolete syntax and do-it-because-I-said-so usage that perpetuates myths about language instead of encouraging us to engage with the complexities and uncertainties inherent in language.
Scientists long ago realized that the earth wasn’t flat—even climate-change deniers know they’re in no danger of falling off the planet when they drive their gas guzzlers to the end of the interstate. And biologists today teach evolution, not some creationist claptrap about Adam and Eve and T-rex and Mrs-rex co-existing happily in the Garden of Eden.
But we’re still teaching the flat-earth grammar that Donatus used, in the fourth century CE, and the faith-based rules that Bishop Robert Lowth and his colleagues laid down in their eighteenth-century English grammars.
Donatus taught his students that a noun was the name of a person, place, or thing:
How knowest a nown? For all maner thing that a man may see, fele, here, or vnderstonde that bereth the name of a thyng is a nown.
[Aelius Donatus, Ars minor, ca. 350. The definition of a noun, above, is taken from Accidence, the English translation of Donatus by John Stanbridge, 1483-1510]
The screen grab below, from a Schoolhouse Rock video which defines a noun as the name of a person, place, or thing, shows that, despite all the twentieth-century advances in structural and transformation linguistics, teaching syntax in the schools hasn’t changed much in the last 1,700 years.
So on National Grammar Day, instead of repeating empty mantras that masquerade as linguistic truths, instead of grammar shaming your friends and family, instead of defacing public property with a magic marker in the name of correctness, why not take a moment to reflect on the linguistic diversity that resists the harangues of those who think they know more than you, and think as well about why this resilience in the face of criticism might actually signal that English is healthy, not moribund.
National Grammar Day should be for the users of the language, not for those wielding the red pens. Face it, the correctors of language are with us all year round. They don't need, or deserve, their own special day.