Monthly Archives: August 2010

Defending the Grammar Snots, Once Again

The NY Times had another review of another grammar book written by another professional writer who is, of course, a man of the people and would not snicker if you wrote the word “grammer.”

The book is The Glamour of Grammar, and it is written by Roy Peter Clark, who teaches at Poynter Institute somewhere in Florida. I am sure he is a kind and thoughtful man, and I am even more certain that he knows a good deal more about English and writing than I do. But he does not seem to know much about the people who teach grammar or the people who need to learn more about it.

Clark has plenty of good advice in the book that the reviewer mentions, but he also takes the time to put the obligatory stick in the eye of all those other grammarians who enforce their personal preferences for what are inevitably arbitrary rules. He writes:

“Prescriptive critics may condemn my recommendation that writers politely ignore the ‘crotchets’ of purists who insist on . . . rules that have little influence on the making of meaning.”

I am well aware that a prescriptivist approach to anything grammatical is going to run into problems, especially when the claims do not account for the evolution of the language or the dialects that exist today. The problem is that those who diss the grammarians usually write with perfect grammar and commune with people who are quite fluent in Standard Written English.

Clark and other well-educated egalitarians can afford to show scorn for the fussy and small-minded who have nothing better to do than correct other people’s misplaced commas. But a professional writer who smears ink on pretentious grammarians always strikes me as the literary equivalent of a Donald Trump telling everyone that money cannot buy happiness.

I certainly agree that many grammarians can miss the point when teaching the importance of grammar to beginning writers. Holden Caulfield was close enough to being right when he said that there was more to writing than knowing where to put the commas. But those who point to historical examples of split infinitives and non-standard spellings have little or no experience with students who cannot recognize an infinitive phrase or a dependent clause.

I do not want to go into yet another rant about the decline of writing skills and western civilization. All of us have read Edward Gibbon and know all about this. The problem is that many of the teachers who have taken a linguistics course in college or read books such as The Glamour of Grammar can explain how it is acceptable to split an infinitive or begin sentences with conjunctions, but they often have little understanding of the rules of Standard Written English themselves. We would not have the “commas go wherever there is a pause” rule if they did.

The problem I am seeing is not an excessive correcting of minor errors by misguided grammarians but a lack of any disciplined instruction in the grammar of Standard Written English. Clark writes that those “who profess that these are violations must face the counterevidence produced in the classic works of some of our most distinguished writers.” And that is the problem.

The British architects who designed St. Peter’s Cathedral did not understand calculus, and the Roman engineers who built the Forum in Rome could not factor a polynomial, but these historical achievements do not mean we need to treat the rules of mathematics as capricious and frivolous. Most of our colleagues in the sciences know this, thank God.

The most useful rules of grammar happen to be arbitrary and ahistorical but fairly logical and usually consistent. That is the way I like them and teach them.