Grammar School Grammar

Once again following around after Language Log’s Geoffrey Pullum yields food for thought. Long ago Pullum wrote a blog entry entitled “More timewasting garbage, another copy-editing moron” in which he heaped scorn on the copy editors who edited Mark Pilgrim’s Dive into Python for their many grammatical incorrections. That post was the one that made me a Language Log fan since I had written a book for the same publisher and had been made batty by all the same incorrections.

John McIntyre, the assistant managing editor for the copy desk at the Baltimore Sun must have seen that post because when he recently wrote a piece for his blog about the old that vs. which usage bugaboo, after defending Fowler’s made-up rule, he tried some preemptive self-defense saying, “That will probably bring down on my head the wrath of the linguists at Language Log …, who appear to hate copy editors’ guts.” He then went on to say:

But I’m just a simple country boy from Kentucky who learned English grammar in Mrs. Jessie Perkins’ fifth- and sixth-grade classes at Elizaville Elementary School and who just tries to get by on what is reasonable and useful.

Why is it that English grammar is one of the few fields where what we learned in fifth and sixth grade is considered state of the art? I doubt the Sun’s assistant managing editor in charge of political reporting would explain the paper’s approach to election coverage by saying: “I’m just a simple country boy from Kentucky who learned about U.S. politics in Mr. Bobbie Smith’s fifth- and sixth-grade Social Studies classes at Elizaville Elementary School.”

We all understand that the way we teach politics, and just about everything else, to ten- and eleven-year-olds is simplified, if not over-simplified. But that’s usually okay since most folks who grow up to be newspaper editors or, for that matter, newspaper readers, probably go on to high-school, college, and maybe even graduate school where they are exposed to less and less simplified versions of our collective understanding of things.

Yet when it comes to grammar and the use of the English language, most folks, including professionals, seem happy to work with the version they learned when they still thought members of the opposite sex had cooties.


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