Who, er, whom do we have to thank for 'proper' English?

Have you celebrated National Grammar Day yet? No? Well, it's no surprise. We've been getting bad advice for years when it comes to language, says one newspaperman.

It's National Grammar Day. That's right: grammar. Not glamour. It's OK. I've made the same mistake. A friend invited me to a New Year's Eve dinner a few years back and I could have sworn she said the theme for the evening was "grammar." I think she nearly dropped the phone when she doubled over. (I've never quite seen the glamour in grammar, but it turns out the two are linked.)

We Are French
A well-written, straight-forward sentence can help get your message across. (Could this one have used a semicolon though?) Anne Dujmovic

The Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar has suggestions on how to celebrate National Grammar Day, including: "If you see a sign with a catastrophic apostrophe, send a kind note to the storekeeper. If your local newscaster says 'Between you and I,' set him straight with a friendly e-mail."

Oh, and be sure to pull your hair back tightly in a bun, and put on your reading glasses (they're on that chain around your neck) and your most disapproving look.

I make my living as an editor, but these strict grammarians would not be at the top of my guest list for a dinner party. But John McIntyre of The Baltimore Sun would be. He says we "have been given bad advice for years" when it comes to language, but there's a reason for it.

McIntyre, a former president of the American Copy Editor's Society, writes a blog for the Sun called "You Don't Say," which mostly focuses on language issues, notably grammar and usage . (He digresses at times, sure. But when the topic is "The One True Fried Chicken," who cares?)

In a post tied to National Grammar Day, McIntyre says the "bogus advice" we've been getting can be traced back to Britain's rise as a world power in the 18th century, Latin starting to fall out of favor, and English gaining in importance.

McIntyre writes: "At the same time, a steadily rising middle class required instruction in proper manners, dress, speech and conduct. There was therefore a market for manuals on correct English. (There is still a market for books advising the uncertain middle class how to dress, talk, write, etc. And diet. The middle class has always been an easy mark.)"

The short story? Linguists have been squabbling ever since.

So what are left with? McIntyre puts it this way: "We are almost certainly stuck with the language as it is, as it is spoken and written and commented on by its speakers and writers, messiness being an apparent corollary of liberty."

His advice to us? "Find the people whose advice seems sensible to you, and follow it."

Disclosure: I met McIntyre once some years ago at a conference. I remember him being witty, well-dressed, and a good dancer. So you can see why he'd be at the top of anyone's guest list.

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About the author

Anne Dujmovic is an associate editor at CNET News. After working more than a dozen years in newspapers, including a seven-year stint at the San Jose Mercury News, Anne migrated north to Portland, Ore. There, she honed her pastry-making skills as an apprentice. Although she's returned to journalism, she still misses the free pastries. E-mail Anne.

 

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