John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and random topics. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to jemcintyre@gmail.com, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. The original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/, at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/, and now at https://www.baltimoresun.com/opinion/columnists/mcintyre/

Friday, July 17, 2020

Maybe you could stop congratulating yourself on your grammar

People who preen online about their command of English grammar often assert that they see a general cultural and educational decline, most frequently calling it a "dumbing-down."

In a forty-year career as an editor at newspapers, I have edited the work of people twenty and thirty years older who received, as I did, the traditional instruction in grammar at school, and of people twenty and thirty and forty years younger who received little or none of the traditional instruction.

And every day for forty years, I have sat down at my desk to deal with the same things. The same damn things: subject-verb agreement, misplaced modifiers, incorrect homonyms. All of it, mind you, the work of college-educated journalists whose profession is writing in standard English.

For that matter, my classmates in the public schools of Fleming County, Kentucky, in the 1960s do not necessarily do any better, despite their exposure to the traditional teaching of English grammar.

The traditional method was not particularly effective, and it left a bad taste in the mouth. Some did learn from it, as some will learn something in almost any pedagogical circumstances—Dr. Johnson believed that boys could not learn the classical languages unless they were beaten.

The British linguist David Crystal writes in Making Sense that "the negative associations that surround grammar are the result of unhappy learning experiences, in which complex sentences, artificial examples, pedantic rules, mechanical analyses, and poor explanations have combined to produce a penitential mindset: 'Grammar is good for me, and if it causes mental anguish, then so be it,' "

That people could develop a solid grasp of formal English grammar under such unpromising circumstances is a real accomplishment, even though, as you can read in Bad Advice, a great deal of what they remember is unreliable.

So let's not make proficiency in grammar, the grammar of formal English, which was badly taught for decades, and then not taught at all, a measure of individual or national intelligence.

Speech comes naturally, but writing has to be learned, and most people never get very good at it, particularly in the dialect known as formal written English. We can see that online, where anyone with a computer can become a published writer. As Gretchen McCullough writes in Because Internet, we can look beyond edited publications to see how people actually write.

From there we can surmise that people in general are about as dumb, or intelligent, as they have always been. We can further surmise, from internal evidence, that the "dumbing-down" trope is trotted out when the writer merely wishes to establish a superior social class standing. That is when the reader will recognize that it is time to move on.

There's a difference between cache and cachet, but knowing that does not confer cachet.







11 comments:

  1. I trust you realize the numbers 40, 30, and 20 are rendered thus, not as words (in this application). Given your orthodoxies on display here, which are more like false gods, I’m sure you’d never begin a sentence with a numeral, either. (3M would beg to differ.)

    Are you sure you’re as curmudgeonly as you think you are?

    ReplyDelete
  2. Perhaps, Mr. Clark, you are aware that there are varying styles in representing numbers. Both Chicago and AP are orthodox, though they differ on a number of points. And if I choose to render these numbers as words rather than numerals, use the Oxford comma, and make other stylistic choices on my own blog, your comments are superfluous.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Discussions about grammar on social media and elsewhere online are far too often characterized by pedantry and condescension. Although I'm fairly proficient at prestige usage, I try not to let it play too great a role in determining my self-worth.

    ReplyDelete
  4. "The same damn things: subject-verb agreement, misplaced modifiers, incorrect homonyms. All of it, mind you, the work of college-educated journalists whose profession is writing in standard English."
    "Speech comes naturally, but writing has to be learned, and most people never get very good at it."

    I honestly don't understand why English speakers find it so difficult to learn those things. I often read posts of my fellow Bosnians who live in English-speaking countries, and never encounter any of those mistakes. Their grammar is impeccable. Those people are immigrants or children of immigrants, who don't speak English at home, who went to ordinary public schools and don't have some elite education, so it can't be so difficult, can it?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Your point is well taken, Sanja. I can think of a couple of reasons why North Americans don't learn proper grammar--assuming there is such a thing--as I was taught in my youth. One is that today's teachers aren't themselves taught the same thing we were (the "royal we"); another is that today's English speakers don't think it's necessary. ("After all, language is fluid and changes over time.")

      Delete
    2. And once we hear that "proper grammar" is whatever someone was taught in one's youth, serious discussion of grammar is generally at an end.

      Delete
  5. i don't treat proficiency in spelling or grammar as a measure of intelligence, just as a measure of whether someone has read a lot or not

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. But the fact that someone has read a lot definitely makes that person more educated and, arguably, more intelligent.

      Delete
    2. Unhappily, it is entirely possible to be an educated, intelligent reader and still ignorant and ill-informed views about grammar and usage.

      Delete
  6. Hello, Mr. McIntyre, I find the title of this article interesting. Are you familiar with Tom Parks, Ph.D.? He wrote a book titled, "You Don't Say! The Ten Worst Mistakes You Can Make in Speech & Writing - & How to Correct Them!" Copyright 1998, published by Warner Books, Inc. Just wonder if titles are covered by copyright protection? Or, are titles protected as trademarks? This inquiring mind wants to know. Thank you.

    ReplyDelete
  7. No, titles of books and blogs are not covered by copyright. After I published my second book this spring, Bad Advice, I discovered a couple of previously published books with the same main title.

    ReplyDelete