Sunday, March 2, 2008

What do Shakespeare and Obama Have in Common?

You'll be excited to learn, as I was, that next week we'll be celebrating National Grammar Day. In honor of this august holiday, I'd like to share a grammar story with you.

"A. Peevie," I said, "don't eat any more of this bacon. The rest is for me and M. Peevie."

"M. Peevie and I," said A. Peevie, wearing his Captain Grammar cape. I gave him a Look.

"What?" he said, with a sly grin. "I'm teaching you English."

The keenly observant among you will immediately note that technically, in terms of standard English grammar, my original construction was correct and A. Peevie's correction was wrong. The phrase "me and M. Peevie" constituted the object of the preposition "for." You wouldn't say "the rest is for I."

But more important, where is he getting the idea that clear, understandable spoken language requires correction? Not from me, I assure you. In fact, he gets quite the opposite from me. We take non-standard grammar and syntax examples and fondly turn them into family slogans, like "What did you said?"

I suspect the nefarious influence of a prescriptive English teacher at school has inculcated the noxious notion that correcting someone's grammar is acceptable and appropriate. I love excellent and precise written and spoken language as much or more as the next guy--but I'm not on board with untrained and unrestrained grammar policing.

The Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar (SPOGG) is the primary sponsor of National Grammar Day. The society's blog (yes, the SPOGG Blog) comments on celebrity grammar goofs, with recent bi-partisan criticism for both President Bush and Senator Obama; and the blog even nags celebs to use "proper English" in text messages and blogs.

Obama got nailed for using a "they" with a singular antecedent--the same construction that Shakespeare used more than once ("There's not a man I meet but doth salute me/As if I were their well-acquainted friend," in A Comedy of Errors). If it's good enough for Shakespeare, and if it occurs "in the carefully prepared published work of just about all major writers down the centuries" according to Language Log's Geoffrey Pullum, then why isn't it good enough for Grumpy Martha (SPOGG's prescriptive host) and the rest of the grouchy prescriptivists?

My favorite linguists over at Language Log Plaza mildly ridiculed National Grammar Day as potentially mean-spirited--but they did not resort to name-calling, as Grumpy Martha said they did in her reply. I'm in the linguist's camp on this one. I don't think we need more finger-pointing about language, especially when the operational definitions of "correct" and "proper" grammar are dynamic.

And we definitely don't need more correcting and finger-pointing from 10-year-old ill-informed language tyrants.

1 comment:

jeanie said...

This is why you will be editing my next paper!