Magazine article Newsweek

Like I Said, Don't Worry; as an 'Expert,' I Find That People Love Words but Grammar Gives Them the Willies

Magazine article Newsweek

Like I Said, Don't Worry; as an 'Expert,' I Find That People Love Words but Grammar Gives Them the Willies

Article excerpt

As an 'expert,' I find that people love words but grammar gives them the willies

NOW THAT I'M A GRAMMAR MAVEN, EVERYONE'S afraid to talk to me. Well, not everyone. Since my grammar book was published this fall, my friends have discovered a new sport: gotcha! The object is to correct my speech, to catch me in the occasional "between you and I" (OK, I admit it). The winner gets to interrupt with a satisfied "aha!"

But people I meet for the first time often confess that speaking with an "authority" on language gives them the willies. Grammar, they say apologetically, was not their best subject. And they still don't get it: the subjunctives, the dependent clauses, the coordinating conjunctions. So their English is bound to be flawed, they warn, and I should make allowances. They relax when I tell them that I'm not perfect either, and that I don't use technical jargon when I write about grammar. You don't have to scare readers off with terms like gerund and participle to explain why an -ing word like bowling can play so many different roles in a sentence. With the intimidating terminology out of the way, most people express a lively, even passionate, interest in English and how it works. As a reader recently told me, "I don't need to know all the parts of a car to be a good driver."

Grammarians and hairsplitting wanna-bes have always loved to argue over the fine points of language. What surprises me these days is the number of grammatically insecure people who are discussing English with just as much fervor, though without the pedantry. As a guest author on radio call-in shows and online chats, I've found that the chance to air a linguistic grievance or pose a question in a nonjudgmental atmosphere often proves irresistible. "Is irregardless OK?" a caller hesitantly asks. "I hear it so much these days." (No.) Or, "Is sprang a word?" (Yes.) "Media is, or media are?" (Are, for the time being.) "I saw an ad with the word alrigbt, spelled A-L-R-I-G-H-T. IS it correct?" (No, it's not all right.) "If I was? Or if I were?" (It depends.) I love it when people who say they hated grammar in school get all worked up over like versus as, or convince versus persuade, or who versus whom. Obviously it wasn't grammar per se that once turned them off. It was the needless pedagoguery--the tyranny of the pluperfects, the intransitives and all the rest. The truth is that people love talking about words, about language. After years as an editor at The New York Times Book Review, I can vouch that almost everybody gets something wrong now and then--a dangler here, a spelling problem there, a runaway sentence, beastly punctuation. Those who regularly screw up would like to do better, and even the whizzes admit they'd like to get rid of a weakness or two.

So, is grammar back? Has good English become ... cool?

Before you laugh, download this. Thanks to the computer, Americans are communicating with one another at a rate undreamed of a generation ago--and in writing. People who seldom wrote more than a memo or a shopping list are producing blizzards of words. Teenagers who once might have spent the evening on the phone are hunched over their computers, gossiping by e-mail and meeting in chat rooms. …

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