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National Grammar Day in Wartime

Today, March 4th, is National Grammar Day. Someone who tweets under the name @DrGrammar just has to write about #NationalGrammarDay. So, in the spirit of the latest grammatical fad of starting every sentence with "so," here goes.

National Grammar Day is one of those holidays, like Halloween, Purim, and Diwali, where celebrants dress up in costume and run through the streets making noise, lighting fires, and correcting other people's grammar — activities guaranteed to scare away evil spirits. Unfortunately, correcting grammar scares away just about everybody.

In my National Grammar Day post back in 2010, I explained that "National Grammar Day is a day to set aside everyday English and follow special rules that have nothing to do with how people actually talk or write."

That's why descriptive grammarians feel about National Grammar Day the way scientists feel about intelligent design. In contrast, prescriptive grammarians want National Grammar Day celebrated in the public schools, much the way Better American Speech Week was celebrated in schools a century ago. 

Archives of the Chicago Woman's Club, Chicago History Museum

In 1918, the Chicago Woman's Club initiated Better American Speech Week and promoted it in the nation's schools. Students were required to take the Better Speech Pledge, which equated good grammar and pronunciation with patriotism. 

Schools also ran poster contests during Better American Speech Week, with the best posters displayed in special exhibits or published in local newspapers. But much like now, 1918 was a time of war, and just as today we're asked to report suspicious persons or unattended packages, Americans back then were exhorted to be watchful and report their neighbors for suspicious activities, especially if those neighbors were immigrants.

Better American Speech Pledge for Children
Above: The nation's students took the Pledge for Children, which equated good speech with good citizenship.
Below: A poster illustrating Better American Speech Week appeared in the Chicago Daily News on Dec. 15, 1918.

 Speak the language of your flag poster

To support the war effort, during Better Speech Week American schools combined civics lessons with grammar. Schoolchildren were asked to spy on one another and report instances of sloppy pronunciation, bad grammar, and slang. The worst offenders — whether immigrant or native-born — were tried before the class, summarily sentenced, and interned. The spies who were caught had to write essays describing the error they had made and correcting it. Offenders were also interned as enemy agents, but despite the warning that anyone escaping from detention "to harm our speech" would be "shot at dawn," there are no reports of students actually being executed for crimes against English. 

Court Martial for bad grammar
Above: Court martials for bad speech or grammar were a regular feature of Better American Speech Week.
Below: After they took this pledge, classroom secret agents spied on one another, followed by a classroom court martial.

Secret agent pledge

Court martial for bad English

Better American Speech Week died out after 1930, a victim of the Depression. Now it's just a single day, National Grammar Day, because since the 2008 crash we can't even afford a whole week of better English. Language guardians still spend National Grammar Day exposing errors and crimes against language, but so far no one's suggesting that we send children who say like for as to some kind of kiddie Gitmo.

Even though there's a War on Terror, in the current economic climate the best we can hope for is that the Affordable Health Care Act might provide funds for curing Americans' bad grammar. But it's clear that in light of the budget cuts brought on by the sequester, federal agencies will no longer be allowed to spend money correcting their own English, let alone anybody else's. 

This year National Grammar Day falls on a Monday. But there's no three-day weekend of big discounts in stores and barbecuing split infinitives. Merchants don't want their "10 items or less" signs defaced and nobody wants to eat with a pedant. Plus, on National Grammar Day there are no presents. Gifting a copy of Strunk & White on National Grammar Day is as welcome as a personal hair trimmer or a new deodorant. So here's a tip for those of you planning a big National Grammar Day party: Nobody's going to come to a National Grammar Day party to have their grammar corrected. Celebrants find that National Grammar Day is a holiday often spent alone. 

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Dennis Baron is professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois and writes regularly on linguistic issues at The Web of Language. He is the author of A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution. You can follow him on Twitter @DrGrammar. Click here to read more articles by Dennis Baron.

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Comments from our users:

Monday March 4th 2013, 10:18 AM
Comment by: Kenneth P.
It would have helped if about 3 or 4 hundred years ago someone would have invented an English alphabet that had a letter for every sound needed in a word. I.e. Who decided to pronounc x like a z when they spelled xylophone? Why did they put a p in front of pneumonia? How is a kid supposed to learn how to pronounce all words with a c in them? Is it a soft c, a hard c, a sissing sound, or what? Do you suppose it would be a little easier to spell words if you knew what letter to use for each sound?

How would a 3rd grader write/right/wright the sentence: Because I said so? Most likely just like the parent said it: Cuz I sed so. The teachers are fighting a losing battle?

English seems to be a hodge podge mix of all the existing (some even extinct) language before the Anglo Saxon people started identifying themselves as independents. Why do we continue to hybridize foreign words into English?

But, what does an old crotchety farm boy, who got nearly straight A's in grammar school and should have flunked in H.S. because he rebelled against all the inconsistencies of phonics, spelling, etc.
Monday March 4th 2013, 1:33 PM
Comment by: Craig J.
Your history lesson provides a reductio ad absurdum for the prescriptivist view of language. Fortunately, a similar history(?) lesson exists for the descriptivist view: Babel. Language standards have value, as do linguistic studies. I expect the two camps should simply agree to disagree (instead of lampooning one another), accept a certain amount of creative tension, and try to avoid PC foolishness at either end of the spectrum. "Can't we all just get along?"
Monday March 4th 2013, 2:53 PM
Comment by: catwalker (Ottawa Canada)
To Kenneth P:

I appreciate where you're coming from. You may find it hard to believe, but many things have actually been getting simpler over the long term. Many ancient texts didn't use spaces between the words: trymakingsenseofthat. Medieval English used a variety of spellings and many abbreviations, which sounds great (you wouldn't be getting your knuckles rapped for spelling mistakes), but standard spelling is better when you're faced with deciding what it means. More recently, some countries have simplified the spelling of some words (honor/honour, etc.), although their populations are sometimes castigated by other nations claim ownership of the same language who didn't make those changes.

Language changes organically. People introduce changes they think they need to make new distinctions or simplify usage, and other people pick them up and use them (or they don't). We can all contribute to and vote on certain changes (do you use the honorific 'Ms' or not? Do you use 'lol'?).

Whatever path we decide to follow about the changes that are up for 'referendum' right now, we need to do it in a way that keeps our speech and writing intelligible to others. Many things that annoy us (the 'p' in pneumonia, for instance) are not on the ballot just now. We all make our choices, and take the consequences regarding how well we are understood.
Monday March 4th 2013, 3:00 PM
Comment by: Richard T.
The most pressing need I see is to broadly disseminate the rules governing subjective and objective case pronouns. Either that or pass a constitutional amendment that changes those rules to reflect popular, uneducated usage. We need to allow evolution in English, as reflected above in my capitulation to the more efficient use of adverbs between "to" and a verb, which was inherited from French.

The other important thing is to put the word "incredible" in moratorium for a year to allow people to remember other adjectives they may have heard of.

Monday March 4th 2013, 3:48 PM
Comment by: EILEEN T.
Dear Richard T.
Never mind the French; how about the Latin rejection of the split infinitive?

I agree that "incredible" should be put in jail along with "awesome" and their other ubiquitous buddies.
Eileen T
Sunday March 10th 2013, 2:28 PM
Comment by: mike H. (san diego, CA)
So dude, a party, suuweet. So when's the next one.


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