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Phil-osophically Speaking - February 26, 2010

English Grammar: A Forbidding and Formidable Subject

Do you know what the greatest conversation stopper in the world is? Pay attention, this could come in handy when encountering a bore at a cocktail party. When the bore asks what you do for a living, arch your eyebrows and inform them in your most professorial tone of voice that you teach English grammar. Watch carefully as a wave of self-consciousness stymies the nuisance into a tongue-tied wreck. Soon, the bore will grasp at any poor excuse to beg leave from the present company, enabling you to enjoy the rest of your evening in peace and serenity.

English grammar: a forbidding and formidable subject for many of us. Wrestling with it in high school and beyond can give anyone a case of the willies. But we know grammar matters because words matter. History records that Plato, nearly 2,500 years ago, was the first to formally lay down the laws of grammar. Funny, I always thought it was Plato’s mother who, when the little philosopher asked if he “can go out and play?,” said “No, Plato, not can, it’s may I go out and play.”

Speaking and writing correctly, however, is no laughing matter. People will often judge your intelligence by them. It is why English is the “Queen of the liberal arts” and the reason why elementary schools were first called grammar schools.

Conjunctive adverbs, split infinitives and dangling participles — Do I use “who or whom,” “lie or lay” or “I or me?” It is enough to put an aspiring grammarian on the psychiatric couch. A little hint on the latter: Me doesn’t perform actions; it receives actions. So it follows: Bob and I {not me} are going to the store — Mary gave the book to me. {Not I}

Knowing a few rules can make the English-speaking world a whole lot friendlier. English, after all, has something on the order of a half a million words that can be arranged into countless sentences. No language compares to English in its shades of meaning, its intricate grammar and the versatility of its usage. There is no gainsaying its central importance in diplomacy, business and science. Being both a Germanic and Latin language you have, for any one idea, two words: Regal is not the same as kingly; fraternal is not the same as brotherly. Ghost is a strong, dark Saxon word, while “spirit” is a light, Latin word; and while the two words essentially convey the same thing, each invokes a different mood. This makes English a language of large possibilities.

The rules of grammar, it has been said, are not dissimilar to vehicular traffic laws. I have come to believe it is true. Both are designed to keep things moving, avoid chaos and prevent crackups. Changing tenses in the middle of sentences is a little like changing lanes without signaling. Language is all about communicating clearly and effectively. I would guess that more everyday problems occur from miscommunication than just about anything else. The 1960s movie Cool Hand Luke, starring Paul Newman, popularized a famous line uttered by a sadistic prison warden when speaking to errant prisoners: “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”

Failure to communicate was not such a big deal centuries ago when most people did not know how to read or write and all life was local. The advent of the printing press, early in the 16th century, launched not only Martin Luther and the Reformation that literally shook Europe down to its very soul, but it also inspired a revolution in communication. Sending books and pamphlets to other parts of the same country meant sending it to someone whose vocabulary and sentence structure was different. In order to avoid civilization from devolving into “Tower of Babel II,” grammar, like currency, had to be standardized.

In England, this task took some 200 years to finalize. Instrumental in this Olympian endeavor were those little specks of ink, punctuation marks, that inculcate into the body of writing regularity and order. Clear and concise communication is the objective of language; but its responsibility lies with the writer. One does not have to produce the rolling, majestic, stellar sentences we find in Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Often short, direct and unadorned language can be just as effective and even moving. Whatever the style, grammar and punctuation provide the intelligent direction that undergirds the whole apparatus of effective communication.

Punctuation, however, like all good things, can be overdone.

In 11th grade, I had an English teacher who was consternated over his students’ inordinate fondness for the comma that popped up in our essays like rabbits in a field of cabbage patches. His name was Mr. Giglio and he was the chairman of the English Department. Like one of those prophets in the Old Testament, he had a bold, red face, a loud voice and a bad temper. Only once did I see this steeliness soften, when he nostalgically recalled watching his boyhood hero, Joe DiMaggio, gracefully roam those spacious pastures in old Yankee Stadium. Then, in a moment of reverie, his eyes danced with childlike delight.

This morning, however, his bulging eyes darted out like bullets. The profusion of commas that littered our sorry, literary landscape, like choking weeds in a rose garden, had driven him almost criminally insane. Rhythmically pounding his angrily clenched right fist on his rickety, unsteady podium, his veins protruding violently around his pulsating, contorted, translucently skinned neck, he took one mighty pause, inhaled a lungful of breath, and then thundered about the evils of comma profligacy: “If in doubt — leave them out,” he roared.

It wasn’t Shakespeare, but his doggerel verse got the point across. Ever since I had used the comma with parsimonious tact, I thought, until mid-stream in my mayoralty, I hit a blip during a conversation with John Ryan, our Village Attorney. John, an astute and learned grammarian, convinced me, Mr. Giglio notwithstanding, that I was being a little too sparing with it. There was no gainsaying John’s pedigree to speak with authority on the subject. His mother, Romayne Jennings, earned a master’s degree in English at Columbia University and would have gone on for her doctorate if marriage and children had not changed her priorities. In the late 1940s, when most women didn’t even go to college, this was no mean accomplishment. She later taught English at Sewanhaka High School for many years and, as John tells it, drilled into him the rules of good grammar and proper usage.

No, the English language isn’t for sissies. It is rigorous, demanding and ever changing. For even its rules, when guided by a perceptive ear, are made to be broken. Thomas Jefferson, one of its masters, readily admitted that he would sacrifice the niceties of syntax to euphony and strength. In the 1960s, a cigarette company took his advice and came up with this jingle: “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should.” English teachers, writers and grammarians were horrified. Not because people were inhaling deadly carcinogens, but for using “like” instead of “as” in their advertisement. The criticism was searing; but the Winston people fired back with a clever riposte: “What do you want — good grammar or good taste?”

Exactly what the Surgeon General had to say about all this nonsense is unrecorded. What we can record here is that both the written and spoken language is not only a uniquely human achievement, it is our greatest achievement. More of us should realize what an extraordinary privilege it is to speak, read, write and think in one of the world’s grandest languages.