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It’s Just Grammar. Whom Really Cares?

Americans are convinced that there’s a right and a wrong way to write something. We gleefully point out other people’s language mistakes, though many of us secretly worry that we use “who” when we should be using “whom,” or put the comma in the wrong place, or confuse “which” and “that.” So we buy books to find the answer.

Self-help language books sport attention-grabbing titles and forced humor. They seldom fulfill their promises. “Painless Grammar,” according to its blurb, will make you laugh (hah!). “The Well-Tempered Sentence” seeks to rescue punctuation from the perils of boredom (yawn). “The Transitive Vampire” aims to keep readers awake with gothic sentences. (A wooden stake and some caffeine would work better.) “Woe Is I” is “the grammarphobe’s guide to better English in plain English.” (Since when is “Woe is I” idiomatic? Since when is “grammarphobe” plain English?) “When Bad Grammar Happens to Good People” plays on the common fear that “how you speak or write is holding you back at work.” (Donald Trump never fired anyone for a solecism.) And “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Grammar and Style” speaks for itself.

New to this corpus is Lynne Truss’ “Eats, Shoots and Leaves,” a British bestseller about where to put the commas that was just released in the U.S. and now holds the No. 2 spot on the New York Times nonfiction list, just behind Richard Clarke’s book about our counter-terrorism failures. That should be a measure of how seriously Americans seek out language advice.

“Eats, Shoots and Leaves” takes its title from a joke. A panda walks into a bar, has a snack and shoots the place up. When challenged, the panda points to the definition of “panda” in a poorly punctuated natural history book: “Large black-and-white mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.”

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Get it? A bit of British humor. Or humour, for unlike the Harry Potter books, Truss’ treatise preserves its Briticisms.

There’s not much chance that a book whose title hinges on a bad joke poses a threat to such classics as Strunk and White’s “Elements of Style,” Henry Fowler’s “Dictionary of Modern English Usage” and George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language.” But it shares the faults of the genre: Relying on such books for advice on writing is like relying on the almanac for a weather forecast. The information provided may not fit your individual needs or circumstances.

Another problem of self-help language books is their tendency to slip up. Fowler made up rules when it suited him. Strunk and White violated their rules when it suited them. Orwell stole his rules of good English from Fowler and passed them off as his own. Nobody’s perfect.

I agree with Truss that amateur and professional writers often mis-punctuate, but she fails to prove that bad punctuation causes misunderstanding. Take the panda joke. Many written versions of it don’t even have commas. The definition simply reads “Eats shoots and leaves.” The ambiguity -- the humor -- is in the ear of the beholder, even on the printed page.

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But people are buying the panda book, and some of them may even read it. That’s where the problem lies. Usage guides should come with the warning, “Don’t try this at home.” These books mislead us into thinking that correctness guarantees effectiveness. A purist in my neighborhood once climbed onto the checkout counter at the grocery store and with a marker changed the express lane’s “12 items or less” to “12 items or fewer.”

Correct, perhaps, but ineffective, because it isn’t idiomatic. Sometimes less is more. Churchill got it right: There is some English up with which we should not put.

There’s no silver bullet that will turn bad writing into good, no just-add-water formula for producing wonderful prose. Books like “Eats, Shoots and Leaves” make us more aware of our language use but, paradoxically, this self-consciousness may backfire. In our attempts to be correct, to follow directions that may not fit the context, we will make more mistakes, not -- ahem -- fewer.

American English remains vibrant and effective precisely because we’re skeptical of authorities. When corrected, we plead the 1st Amendment: “It’s a free country, and no one tells me what to say!”

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Dennis Baron is the author of seven books on the English language. He teaches English and linguistics at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.


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