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Karen Virag

GETTABLE GRAMMAR: Grammar class wars

Workman on a roof

Gettable Grammar is a monthly series of conjectures, opinions and postulates by Karen Virag.

Workman on a roofGRAMMAR CLASS WARS

Grammar. If it’s not your gramper’s wife, what the heck is it? Well, grammar is the field of linguistics that covers the conventions of a language; it involves morphology and syntax, phonetics, phonology, semantics, and pragmatics. Still scratching your head? Here is a simpler definition from Edward Johnson, who wrote in The Handbook of Good English (1991) that grammar is one of the tools language employs to convey meaning; essentially, it is a set of observations about how we speak.

Like so many editors, I love grammar, so I am proud to be one-half of the Grammar Gals—the other half is Virginia Durksen. We Gals are the resident grammar experts on a CBC Alberta call-in radio program, “Alberta at Noon.” People across the province phone in with questions about English grammar and usage but also with complaints about how other people speak. They want to know the rules for the “correct” way to say something, though the notion of correctness leads to the eternal and irresolvable debate between prescriptivists, who like rules and advocate that people follow them, and descriptivists, who are far more accepting of non-standard and non-traditional uses.

Sometimes, people call us to settle a dispute (we once helped settle a bet over the plural of roof; the question came from some callers who were actually listening to the radio while working on a roof). Problematically, though, sometimes people simply want to vaunt their grammar superiority in front of others. A man once phoned the program to complain that the Princes—Harry and William—spoke English like “workmen.” As a daughter of a “workman” myself, I was both affronted and taken aback by the man’s superciliousness (expressed in an arch English accent, which, presumably was the accent he thinks the Princes should use).

Now, we Gals love a lively debate as much as anyone, but there is no excuse for using grammar to put people down. This reminds me of a birthday card I once received. It had a photo of two women on the front. One asks the other, “Where’s your birthday party at?” The other replies, “Don’t you know it’s wrong to end a sentence with a preposition?” At this point, you open the card to reveal a perfect riposte to the grammar snob (who mistakenly believes that there is actually a rule against sentence-ending prepositions): “Where’s your birthday party at, bitch?”

Workmen, one. Snobs, zero.

Next post: Less is More


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