March 4 is National Grammar Day. Grammar is a large field, and its boundaries can be fuzzy, but it’s the study of the rules by which a language is spoken and written. Grammar includes—but is by no means limited to—punctuation; parts of speech; syntax, word order, and sentence structure; and all of the other rules that make up the “correct” use of a language.
If we grow up speaking a language (or if we are lucky enough to grow up speaking more than one language), our grasp of its grammar will be largely intuitive. Native English speakers don’t have to be told, for instance, that adding an "s" to a noun is a common way to make it plural; they just absorb the information as they learn the language.
But every language has irregularities and quirks in its grammar that have to be learned as exceptions—it’s “mice,” not “mouses”—things for which there’s no real explanation beyond “that’s just the way it is.” And English has more than its share of such baffling exceptions, so there’s a large number of books on various aspects of grammar.
Style guides range from the relatively formal to the very playful. At the formal end, we have Bryan A. Garner’s The Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation (e-book) and Kathleen Sears’s Grammar 101 (e-book); Benjamin Dreyer’s Dreyer’s English (e-book | e-audio | print) has a sharper sense of humor; Gyles Brandreth’s Have You Eaten Grandma? (e-book | print) and Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots and Leaves (e-book | print) are at the livelier end of the spectrum. If you feel the need for a thorough series of lessons, Anne Curzan’s English Grammar Boot Camp, part of the Great Courses series, is available in video and audio formats.
Among the first formal instruction many of us received in grammar was learning the parts of speech. If you were a child in the 1970s and 1980s, you may have learned them from the grammar segments of Schoolhouse Rock, singing along with “Conjunction Junction” or “Unpack Your Adjectives.” Today, pronouns are the part of speech most often in the public eye, as the increasing visibility of transgender and non-binary people means that our traditional uses of “he” and “she” aren’t always adequate; Dennis Baron explores that issue, and the surprisingly long history of the search for gender-inclusive pronouns, in What’s Your Pronoun? (e-book | e-audio | print).
It’s likely that punctuation was also an early part of your grammar instruction, and it can still be confusing to figure out when to use a semicolon instead of a comma, or the difference between a dash and a hyphen. Noah Lukeman sorts out your punctuation questions in A Dash of Style (e-book | print), and Patrick C. Notchtree looks at the particular challenges posed by the apostrophe in Apostrophe Catastrophe (e-book). Keith Houston ventures into the history of each punctuation mark in Shady Characters (e-book | print), and Cecilia Watson gets very specific in her look at the history of the Semicolon (e-book | e-audio | print).
If you are older than the Schoolhouse Rock generation, you might have been asked in school to diagram sentences, which involved drawing a diagram that looked something like a stick figure of a leafless tree turned on its side, with each word placed in a specific place on the diagram to illustrate its grammatical relationship to the other words in the sentence. Diagramming is no longer common in American schools, but Kitty Burns Florey considers whether it should be revived in Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog (e-book | print).
Some of us are professionaly obliged to be more concerned with grammar than most people. Newspaper editor David Marsh writes about his “quest for grammatical perfection” in For Who the Bell Tolls (e-book), and Mary Norris talks about her life as the copy editor for The New Yorker in Between You and Me (e-book | print | audio).
If you get too worried about grammar, especially if you spend too much time worrying about other peoples’ grammar, you run the risk of becoming a grammar snob, and as June Casagrande reminds us, Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies (e-book | e-audio | print). Bill Walsh offers tips for the recovering grammar snob in Yes, I Could Care Less: How to Be a Language Snob Without Being a Jerk (e-book).
A language rarely has one single set of grammatical rules that are followed by all speakers. Different regions, and different groups of people, speak different dialects. Most English speakers, for example, don’t use different words for “you” meaning one person and “you” meaning a group of people. But your dialect might have a separate word for plural “you” if you live in the southeast (“y’all”), parts of New York (“youse”), or the Pittsburgh area (“yins”).
Some dialects, and the grammars that go with them, are viewed by many as being “ungrammatical;” in Talking Back, Talking Black (e-book | e-audio), John McWhorter looks at the dialect known as Black English, or African American Vernacular English, and finds that while its grammatical rules often differ from those of “standard” English, the dialect does have a consistent set of rules.
Every language has its own grammar, with its own set of idiosyncrasies and unusual features. Gaston Dorren explores the distinctive features of the twenty most widely spoken languages in Babel (e-book | print), and gives us a more whirlwind tour of sixty European languages in Lingo (e-book | print).
Language and grammar are constantly changing. By making more writing, by more different people, widely available, the internet is accelerating and spreading that change. Emmy J. Favilla’s A World Without “Whom” (e-book | print) and Gretchen McCulloch’s Because Internet (e-book | e-audio | print) explore language change in the 21st century.
Also This Week
March 2, 1877
Republican Rutherford B. Hayes was elected President in a controversial Electoral College vote of 185-184 over Democrat Samuel Tilden. Tilden had won a majority of the popular vote, but 20 electoral votes from four states were unresolved amidst charges of election fraud. Democrats agreed to let those 20 votes be counted for Hayes; in exchange, Republicans agreed to withdraw Federal troops from the South, ending Reconstruction. Roy Morris Jr. tells the story of the bitterly fought election in Fraud of the Century (e-book | print).
March 5, 1910
Momofuku Ando was born. Ando was the founder of the Nissin Foods Company. He invented instant ramen noodles, which were first sold in 1958, and created the internationally popular brands Top Ramen and Cup Noodles. Andy Raskin’s The Ramen King and I (e-book | e-audio) is a memoir about his three-year quest to meet Ando, and the life lessons he found in Ando’s instant ramen.
March 8, 1910
Claire Trevor was born. Trevor was one of the most popular Hollywood actresses of the 1930s, making more than 30 movies in that decade. Her career continued into the mid-1960s, after which she mostly retired, working only very rarely. Among her most enduring films are the classic 1939 western Stagecoach and the 1948 crime drama Key Largo, for which Trevor won the Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress.
March 3 is World Hearing Day
Observed by the World Health Organization since 2007, World Hearing Day is devoted to the promotion of better hearing care and the prevention of hearing loss. The theme for the 2020 observance is “Hearing for Life: Don’t let hearing loss limit you.” David Owen’s Volume Control (e-book | e-audio | print) explores how hearing works, and the science of hearing aids and other technological aids to hearing