Grammar Hammer: Vertigo Swinging the Grammar Pickaxe

My Dad once told me that a man could work himself to death with a pickaxe. I don’t know if he knew the John Henry ballad; probably he knew it, but I do know he had swung a pickaxe. But his claim was one of fact, not value. It wasn’t necessarily a bad way to die, on the swinging end of a hammer. But he may have been using the pickaxe as a metaphor. A man kills himself whatever he does, and if not, as Woody Guthrie sang, “Some [men] will rob you with a six gun, others with a fountain pen,” so there’s little hope of escaping either end of the pickaxe. My Dad knew his tools, but he didn’t know an existential wrench from an existential clause (there was no dummy pronoun grabbing hold of that handle), and so he never mentioned a man could work himself to death studying grammar.

John Henry didn’t swing a pickaxe, but a sledge hammer. Same idea. But what kills him isn’t the hammer, but the race pitting the hand-tool hammer to beat the new technology of the steam hammer. It’s not the tool, but the fight that gets you, and the race is always against technology – which you created to make things easier, thinking the tool would be irrelevant. In any case, while we probably won’t be hearing the Ballad of John Computer, or the Ballad of John Grammar, anytime soon, we’re here to tell you that the study of grammar will take its toll.

Consider the semantically singular they, for example. It’s OK, stay with him. You both can and may use a they following everyone. And don’t worry about for whom the bell tolls; whoever it tolled for, they’ve heard it by now, which brings us to that non-personal head that’s really only a problem for a comma king. Moreover, did you know that “the danger from adjunct non-finite clauses with missing subjects that are not syntactically determined is often exaggerated” (p. 209)? We will miss that dang dangling modifier.

We’re in no race to quickly finish Pullum’s Grammar – a good thing, too, because we’re cutting through it with a pickaxe (for as the back cover tells us, this is a “groundbreaking textbook”), and we don’t want our grammar hammer to be the end of us too soon, Lawd – Lawd. “Let the hammer do the work,” my Dad advised whenever he saw me overswinging and looking dizzy. While I try today to apply that advice to grammar, if you’ve not had enough grammar fun this morning, try this.

Piracy off the Coast of Gramarye

Huddleston and Pullum’s English Grammar liberates grammar studies from the prescriptivists. Pullum boards the jolly, unsuspecting ship Elements of Style, captained by the evil E. B. White, and ransacks it, taking no prisoners. Pullum is now king of Gramarye, having deposed White and his motley crew of prescriptive pirates. A Student’s Introduction to English Grammar is the dinghy version of the piratically priced mother ship, The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language.

Why study grammar? Most native speakers will get “dog, the, away, ran” correct (correctness is not, contrary to popular notion, the language spoken in Gramarye – correct is what serves one’s purpose; now if we have that wrong, we are still deliberating; we’re not sure who the true pirates are in this story).

“The, dog, ran, away” is the first exercise in Dinghy. There are 24 possible arrangements of the four words; only three will be grammatical, and they are not difficult for the native speaker to recognize, for, as it turns out, if we speak the language, we know the grammar. So why study grammar?

We are given eight reasons in the preface to Dinghy, only a couple very convincing, at least one political, having to do with the declining student population of Gramarye. I wish they had talked about how they got into the study of grammar, why they became grammarians and linguists; there’s little passion in the reasons they submit. Pullum did a study early in his career analyzing popular song lyrics – he could have talked about that! There is a whiff of passion in the middle of the preface, where they talk about their lunch discussions, and the “pronouncements unchallenged for 200 years [that] are in fact flagrantly false.” We’re all for exposing the tyranny of the old kings and their minions, but Dinghy’s preface is no match for Roger Angell’s (White’s stepson and another New Yorker writer) forward to the fourth edition of Elements.

Pullum seems bent on defending his reign, and more power to him, for it will be some time before his prescriptive grammar alerts are heard and understood throughout the land, but he sounds like a Fox News commentator when he says “We linguists should not be shy about speaking out and condemning this opinionated [Elements], influential, error-stuffed, time-wasting, unkillable zombie of a book for all the harm it has done.” *

One of the problems with Pullum’s claim that Elements has done “real and permanent harm,” and that it has been “deleterious to grammar education in America,” * is the assumption that every high school kid in the land has been subjected to it, and having been subjected to it, has successfully incorporated it into their language skills, and that their teachers taught it as a literal reading of the bible – or that their teachers taught it at all. In any case, it might be a good thing if a style book, even a flawed one such as Pullum accuses White’s of being, had anything close to such a profound effect on the general reading public. And there’s the rub. Pullum goes after White because he’s not a text-book. Pullum proves that as a grammar Elements is way off course. Why doesn’t Pullum go after the text-books? White is only a puppet king.

White’s an easy target. Elements is a commercial effort, something CGEL will never be (my copy of English Grammar, purchased from Amazon for just under $30, does not have a price anywhere on its cover – it’s a text-book). I do like English Grammar. I first tried paddling straight through, but got only about half way before the swell of terms started to swamp my boat; I recommend that the general interest reader begin with the “Prescriptive grammar notes” – that’s where the new constitution is being written.

What grammar studies needs isn’t a Pullum, but an Andy Warhol, someone who can show us and popularize what we already know to be true – Gramarye is our land.

*Pullum’s article explicating Elements, “Prescriptive grammar in America: The Land of the Free and The Elements of Style,” (Dec. 2009), is posted on his website, along with links to his other works, including CGLC and EG. Pullum blogs with other linguists at Language Log, an entertaining pirate hangout.