Celebrating the Orderly Flow of Words in Our Lives
I am a word nerd. I know that lie is an intransitive verb and lay is a transitive verb. I love finding out where words like smorgasbord and ennui come from (the former is Swedish, the latter French). I care that every mailbox and doormat and hand-painted porch goose that says The Johnson’s is wasting our nation’s precious apostrophes.
As a trained linguist, my head tells me to be a descriptivist, that is, to merely report what people say and how they say it. To study it as one would study fossils or sparrow migrations. As a person who sees there are organizing principles governing how we use language, my heart tells me we need to be a little more prescriptive. Pay a little attention to the rules, people!
So, if you are like me and feel too many speakers are casually misusing (or wantonly abusing) the English language, then March 4th is the day you should march forth to declare your loyalty to language. This day is National Grammar Day.
National Grammar Day was established in 2008 by writer Martha Brockenbrough, founder of the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar (SPOGG). The mission of SPOGG is to “encourage the use of standard English grammar and spelling” while maintaining “a sense of humor about language.” To learn more about English grammar—and have a chuckle about it at the same time, go here to Ms. Brockenbrough’s blog.
A colleague-in-arms on the grammar front is Mignon Fogarty. Under the pseudonym of Grammar Girl, Ms. Fogarty (with a wonderfully American hybrid moniker: first name French, last name Irish) reads a weekly podcast on various issues of English grammar, writing, spelling, and punctuation. You can get weekly tips on improving your English communication here.
To help you celebrate the holiday, Ms. Fogarty has written and recorded a snappy tune called “March Forth.” If you want to break into song as you celebrate this new holiday (no time off, sorry), you can sing along here.
Happy National Grammar Day, everyone! March forth!
Vocabulary, Cultural Concepts, & Grammar Explanations
a (word) nerd = a person who loves a subject (like language) and studies it more than most people
lie (intr. verb) = an action word that does not have a recipient of the action: The physical therapist told me to lie down on the table.
lay (tr. verb) = an action word that has a recipient of the action: You can lay your jacket on the chair. Chickens lay eggs.
where words come from = etymology, linguistic origins
mailboxes, doormats, hand-painted porch goose = Many Americans like to put their names on their houses and property. Some families like to create their own homemade decorations, which may include a painted goose on the front porch of their homes. They make sets of clothing for the geese and change them in different seasons.
The Johnson’s = Since there is more than one Johnson living at the house, the correct spelling is The Johnsons. The mistaken apostrophe indicates that the house is the possession of one person named The Johnson (a strange concept, indeed). For more on correct apostrophe use, see my earlier blog, Apoplectic Apostrophes. Humorist Dave Barry once wrote that the purpose of an apostrophe in American English was to warn readers that an S was coming.
wasting our nation’s precious apostrophes = Here I’m using humor. It’s true that the use of unnecessary apostrophes uses extra computer keystrokes and extra ink for printing, but the amount is probably negligible.
a linguist = a person who studies language as a system, analyzing how the various components (sounds, vocabulary, grammar, order, change over time, etc.) relate to each other. An applied linguist looks at how language works to communicate in human interactions.
a descriptivist = a language specialist who describes language phenomena without ascribing judgment to the variations (not labeling language use as “right” or “wrong” )
a prescriptivist = a language specialist who tells people how they should use language (prescribing “correct” language use, challenging “incorrect” use according to certain standards)
March 4th – march forth = These two phrases are pronounced the same but have different meanings. The name for the month of March comes from the Roman god of war, Mars. The verb ‘to march’ means to step along like a soldier. The word ‘forth’ means ‘forward.’ The cleverness of establishing National Grammar Day (NGD) on this date allows for the second meaning of ‘stepping confidently forward.’
have a chuckle about it = to laugh about it
Brockenbrough’s blog = Try to say this three times real fast. This is a tongue-twister!
colleague-in-arms = a fellow soldier, someone who will fight alongside you
on the (grammar) front = along the battle lines (of grammar)
Mignon Fogarty = Her first name is also the name for an expensive kind of steak: filet mignon—in English, pronounced [min-yahn].
pseudonym = a pen name, an assumed name, not the author’s real name
wonderfully American hybrid moniker = Because people from the U.S. come from hundreds of ethnic backgrounds, it is common to find people with identities from multiple origins. ‘Moniker’ is another word for ‘name.’
snappy tune = a song that is bouncy, catchy, or fun to sing
holiday (no time off, sorry) = Some U.S. holidays include closing of banks, schools, and governmental offices. Many others are observed with large or small fanfare but people still have to go to work or school. In this case, it is fun to go to school (or work) on NGD so that people can discuss the importance of grammar in their communication.