Verbal Energy

The imperatives of National Grammar Day

Who knew that a day devoted to good grammar could be so much fun?

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How, dear reader, will you celebrate National Grammar Day?

National Grammar Day was launched in 2008 by Martha Brockenbrough, founder of the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar, or SPOGG. It is being observed for the sixth time on March 4.

You've got to hand it to Ms. Brockenbrough for her inspired choice of date, which forms a complete sentence: March forth!

Recommended: Test your grammar 'smarts' with our quiz!

As Mignon Fogarty, of "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing" fame, puts it:

"Language is something to celebrate, and March 4 is the perfect day to do it. It's not only a date, it's an imperative: March forth on March 4 to speak well, write well, and help others do the same!"

NationalGrammarDay.com has all kinds of fun stuff. There are free classroom materials, including a "correct the celebrity" quiz, appropriate for middle- and high-school students, in which they are asked to copy-edit such utterances as Justin Timberlake lyrics ("When you cheated girl/ My heart bleeded girl") and to "circle the errors Paris Hilton made blogging about her new shoe collection. (Hint: there are at least three!)" Or try the Monitor's tougher quiz at http://bit.ly/CSMgrammarquiz.

There's grammar-oriented fiction, and links to retail opportunities such as "Punctuation Saves Lives" T-shirts. These demonstrate their point with two sentences, one with a comma and the other not: "Let's eat grandma" versus "Let's eat, grandma." (It's available on a fridge magnet for those who prefer to keep jokes about intrafamilial cannibalism private.)

Grammar, from a Greek word for "letters," is related to all those Greek-derived words referring to some form of writing (photography, for instance, meaning "writing with light"). By the time it came into English, in the 1300s, it referred to learning generally; a few centuries later, its meaning tightened to refer to the study of classical languages and literature. Now grammar has come to mean "the set of rules that describe the structure of a language and control the way that sentences are formed," as the Macmillan Dictionary puts it.

Grammar was traditionally taught at "grammar schools" – an elastic term that has been used to describe primary schools as well as university prep schools, where the grammar students wrangle is, in theory at least, Greek and Latin.

Another bit of learning from my latest visit to the Online Etymology Dictionary was that Samuel Johnson's Dictionary included the wonderful term grammaticaster, defined as "a mean verbal pedant."

What does National Grammar Day say about the nation's relationship with its language? As Brockenbrough told Heidi Stevens of the Tribune Newspapers last year, "For me, the goal is to get people to think about language and why being careful with it matters. There was this idea out there that speaking well and knowing what words mean and how they work was somehow elite and untrustworthy. This is ridiculous."

Not that there isn't a certain amount of grammatical vigilantism out there, including on the SPOGG website. Indeed, SPOGG refers to its logo as embodying an "action figure" – a vaguely anthropomorphic shape that seems to be wielding an exclamation point as a club, presumably to beat on those who do truly dumb things such as write "Debbinshire cream" instead of "Devonshire."

Let him who is without sin be the first grammaticaster.

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