Off Deadline: Where is 'Conan the Grammarian' in the battle with grammar barbarians?

Reflecting on the evolution of language

In my senior year at Los Gatos High School I received a wonderful gift: Mrs. Goodwin, a substitute English teacher who had returned to teaching after a quarter-century raising a family.

Tall, thin and stern-looking, she drilled us late-1950s seniors on parts of speech, independent clauses, participles, prepositions, verbs and other niceties of a great language -- core parts of which most of us hadn't had to confront seriously in our "social-adjustment" school era.

Most of my classmates were horrified. Many, perhaps most, tried to transfer out. I don't think she was hired back. Too bad.

Yet I, for some reason, responded enthusiastically to her sentence diagrams and exercises. I had escaped most "regular English" by enrolling in speech, another great gift that overcame a grade-school fear of speaking to more than two kids at a time, even if I knew them most of my life. "Speech" was taught by another great teacher, Jack Cody.

Yet his focus on elocution, debate skills, extemporaneous reading, speech writing and delivery crowded out the more mundane elements of the language.

Mrs. Goodwin ended my blissful ignorance of such things.

At San Jose State College my appreciation for the language grew. On my own time I translated portions of Chaucer from Middle English, correcting his terrible spelling of the new, rapidly evolving language. A relatively recent translation of the Old English Beowulf tale, by the great contemporary Irish poet Seamus Heaney, has Old English on one page and Heaney's wonderful line-by-line modern translation on the facing page.

Our modern American English is still evolving, I'm glad to report -- yet with mixed feelings.

Much later, five-plus years of teaching newswriting (as a community lecturer) at Stanford University cemented that knowledge as I tried to figure out how to explain errors in grammar and style to students steeped all their educational lives in the looser, overly padded "essay style" or term-paper writing.

I appreciate the evolution of language, in which rules change according to common usage by real people in the real world.

And yet I still find myself caught by surprise by basic grammatical mistakes of professional newscasters on television and even National Public Radio, on top of frequent mistakes in newspapers and (less so) in magazines. Yes, everyone makes typographical errors and even "mental typos," mistakes of fact. Careful self-editing and having a good editor really helps, along with regular use of the Associated Press Stylebook and Strunk & White's thin, fun-to-read book, "The Elements of Style."

In recent years, I have become increasingly aware of how English as I have known and loved it is evolving, right before my eyes. I have evolved also, to the point when grammatical ignorance of professional journalists and announcers has ceased to make my back teeth hurt -- a common plaint of old-school grammarians.

The worst offense is an old one: the dread "dangling preposition," as in "Where are you going to?" Or a double-whammy mistake: "Who are you giving that to?" The latter sentence violates the dangling preposition and the who/whom distinction between subject and object. (Think "he/she/they" for "who" and "him/her/them" for whom. Or my shorthand: "he/who, him/whom.")

Thanks largely to McDonald's selling "over 5 kazillion" burgers, most of us have blurred "over" and "more than," relative height versus quantity. Similarly, "less" versus "fewer" for volume versus specific items. Aargh!

I have friends who orally correct television reporters and announcers when they utter expressions showing ignorance of the language they are being paid to utilize.

A special irritant is the misuse of "like" for "such as," confusing similarity with an example, as in, "Cities like San Francisco and San Jose...." There is scant similarity between the two, much less other places. But "such as" fits neatly.

As for "Conan the Grammarian," I first became acquainted with this anonymous critic when doing publications for the Palo Alto Medical Foundation. Whenever a questionable, or wrong, bit of language showed up in a newsletter I would receive a marked-up copy via in-house mail signed only by "Conan the Grammarian."

After several years, George Daughters, then a research scientist at the foundation, confessed over lunch to being the mysterious Conan. He told me grammatical errors triggered messages from his high school English teacher, Aggie Hochstrasser -- his Mrs. Goodwin, it seems.

I once was chided for beginning sentences with a conjunction, such as "and" or "but." I wrote in pre-email days to an expert grammar site for advice about that common practice. I received a response from a longtime grammarian based in Britain. He said while starting a sentence with a conjunction once was frowned upon it has since become acceptable.

"And I really mean that," he concluded his note.

As for proper use of participles, just try Googling that one. You won't find any simple shorthand rule(s). If you find one, please let me know.

But ending a sentence with a preposition, such as the simple "to" or "with," is another matter. The debate over this one goes back at least eight decades in the modern era, and for several centuries before that.

The ostensible rule -- passed on through generations in old-school grammar books -- has been ascribed to a remark by poet John Dryden in 1672 that was picked up by Robert Lowth, an 18th century bishop in London, in his "A Short Introduction to English Grammar."

John McWhorter, who writes a "Grumpy Grammarian" column in the New Republic magazine, tackled the rule head-on in a May 2013 essay. The rule's nonsense, he wrote, striking a blow for language evolution. Take that, Conan!

McWhorter led off with one of the best-known language anecdotes of the past century: When an aide on Winston Churchill's wartime staff corrected a dangling preposition in a "W.C." bulletin-board memo, Churchill scrawled a scathing response that also illustrated the awkwardness of trying to avoid such dangles:

"This is the kind of nonsense up with which I will not put."


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8 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 2, 2016 at 7:54 am

I think grammar should be taught better in our high schools. I am amazed at the poor standard of writing as well as speaking by young people.

Pet hates: sure does not mean yes, using contractions incorrectly, would of instead of would have, etc. etc.

Please teach our language correctly as it will make a big difference to our young people's future success. It is something that will stand by them longer than their SATs and GPAs. Making basic grammar mistakes will hold them back when it comes to job applications, job interviews, and promotions.

4 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 4, 2016 at 9:49 am

I thought I had seen and commented on this before. Sadly listing it twice will probably add to my December count.

11 people like this
Posted by There there there
a resident of Community Center
on Dec 5, 2016 at 4:50 pm

"Would of" and "could of" make me cringe.
Same with incorrect usage of their, they're and there.

8 people like this
Posted by Kennita Watson
a resident of another community
on Dec 5, 2016 at 11:23 pm

-- "Would of" and "could of" make me cringe.

These could be placed either under poor grammar or under poor spelling. Someone hearing the proper word "would've" might well misspell what was heard as the homonymic phrase "would of". With feet held to the fire, many might even admit to having "would have" in mind when they use the relative neologism "woulda" (at which my rear teeth still hurt).

5 people like this
Posted by Kennita Watson
a resident of another community
on Dec 5, 2016 at 11:52 pm

-- "This is the kind of nonsense up with which I will not put."

While amusing in its silliness, this is just Churchill being petulant, likely because the aide in question, while a passable grammarian, was an execrable editor. Of course, the dangling-participle controversy could have been avoided entirely by picking up the sentence by one arm. shaking vigorously, and setting it back down as "I will not put up with this sort of nonsense." I put forward the proposition that most, if not all, sentences that threaten to leave prepositions dangling can be reconstructed/simplified/clarified similarly.

6 people like this
Posted by Chip
a resident of Professorville
on Dec 6, 2016 at 2:42 pm

"No problem" doesn't mean "yes." How about "nucular" instead of "nuclear" as George Bush & some newscasters say? I hear "relator" for realtor. "Cohabitating" drives me nuts. So does the misuse of "decimate," which means reducing by 10%, not total destruction or annihilation.
The "t" in "often" is silent. Coupon isn't "cwu-pon." How many "Rs"are in February? "Athlete" & "dilate" have 2 syllables, not 3. I don't know what "bob wire" is but I've seen barbed wire.
Teachers try but it's very hard to correct the speech kids have learned at home. No one "axed" me so I must stop before I become the New Curmudgeon.

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 6, 2016 at 2:49 pm

February may have the same number of Rs each side of the Atlantic, but the number pronounced varies. Web Link

The same should be said for library.

2 people like this
Posted by Russ Skinner
a resident of another community
on Jan 16, 2017 at 6:51 pm

I enjoyed the piece, but did cringe at "the point when...." Surely that should have been "the point where."

6 people like this
Posted by Kennita Watson
a resident of Stanford
on Sep 23, 2017 at 11:18 pm

The one that's driven me crazy most often lately is people saying "lay" when they mean "lie". It's "lie down", not "lay down", and "lie on the floor", not "lay on the floor". I can forgive people for being confused, because it's correct to say "lay that down there" or "lay it on the floor". Strangely, people seem to get "Let sleeping dogs lie." right.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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