October 25, 2007

shoot the panda

The Times recently had a piece on grammar sticklers on Facebook. It was entitled "Your Modifier is Dangling", but as far as I could see, there was no dangling modifier in the text. Also, there seems to be some confusion between grammar and spelling, judging from the following example.

Ms. Nichols is one of many young people throwing off her generation’s reputation for slovenly language, and taking up the gauntlet for good grammar. Last year, after seeing a sign on a restaurant window that said “Applications Excepted,” she started a grammar vigilante group on Facebook, the social networking site, and called it “I Judge You When You Use Poor Grammar.” Its 200,000 members have gleefully and righteously sent in 5,000 photographs documenting grammatical errors.
When it comes to outspoken criticism of other people's grammar, there is often a gap between competence (knowledge about grammar) and performance (criticism of other people's grammar):

So, when is it O.K. to correct grammar? When you’re a teacher, of course, or when you’re coaching a nonnative speaker who has asked for help. But if you can’t control the impulse to help a friend by correcting a mistake, what’s the best way to do so? It seems there are two options. You can ask, “Oh, is that the way you pronounce that word?” Then go on to say that you always pronounced it differently, and demonstrate how you do so. A more subtle approach: Don’t point out the mistake. Instead, repeat what was just said, but with correct usage this time, and in your own sentence. Then keep talking. Ms. Agress, the business-writing expert, uses this technique. “So if someone tells me that everyone has their issues,” she said, “I reply, ‘Yes, everyone has his issues, but that doesn’t mean we have to worry about them.’”

What I worry about is if people like Ms. Agress will even consider looking up the facts in a real grammar of English (you know, those fat books that don't have pandas in their titles and that don't end up on bestseller lists):

The use of they with a singular antecedent goes back to Middle English, and in spite of criticism since the earliest prescriptive grammars it has continued to be very common in informal style. In recent years it has gained greater acceptance in other styles as the use of purpotedly sex-neutral he has declined; indeed its use in examples like No onei felt that theyi had been misled is so widespread that it can probably be regarded as stylistically neutral. [The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, p. 493]

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