We wanted to get to know John McIntyre (NAIWE’s Grammar Expert) better, so last month we sat down with him. Here are some thoughts he shared with us.
Do grammar rules change based on genre?
Something we all understand intuitively, but which some people find troublesome, is that we have many Englishes, and each one has its own grammar. “Me and Emily are going to the mall” is an error in formal, standard English, but the conjoined subject is immediately understood, widely in use, conformed to a recognized pattern, and, therefore, grammatical in the informal dialect in which it is used. Similarly, double negatives are an error in standard English but a recognized grammatical pattern for emphasis in African American English.
Is there one reliable grammar source?
The thing you half-remember from high school English is probably not. A good bit of the advice you can find online is trash. (See my little book, Bad Advice: The Most Unreliable Counsel Available on Grammar, Usage, and Writing.) If you need to consult an authority on formal English, Garner’s Modern English Usage by Bryan A. Garner furnishes the best-informed prescriptivist advice you can find. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage provides historical background and leaves choices to you. Dreyer’s English by Benjamin Dreyer is recent, informed, and lively. You would do well to keep all three close at hand for when you have serious concerns about grammar and usage.
What do you find fascinating about grammar?
I spent half of my forty years as an editor learning things and the second half unlearning them. The traditional schoolroom grammar was drummed into me in school in rural Kentucky. In my time as an editor, talking over issues with other editors, and later becoming acquainted with linguists and lexicographers, I arrived at a much broader understanding of English grammar. It’s so much more varied and interesting to explore than the tired, stale, and unhelpful prescriptivist/descriptivist categories, or the erroneous belief that English is in decline, would have you believe. I try to keep in mind something that H.L. Mencken wrote in The American Language: “The error of . . . viewers with alarm is in assuming that there is enough magic in pedagogy to teach ‘correct’ English to the plain people. There is, in fact, too little; even the fearsome abracadabra of Teachers College, Columbia, will never suffice for the purpose. The plain people will always make their own language, and the best that grammarians can do is to follow after it, haltingly, and often without much insight. Their lives would be more comfortable if they ceased to repine over it, and instead gave it some hard study. It is very amusing, and not a little instructive.”
John, who was a working newspaper editor for 40 years, has watched writers grapple with changing patterns of English usage and wants to help you make reasonable decisions. You can send him questions that concern you, and he will answer them at the webinar. Anticipating your concerns, he is preparing advice on perennial concerns: Should we give up on “whom”? Is singular “they” here to stay and acceptable everywhere? What can we do about “lie” and “lay”? You will get the best advice available.
You can join in this conversation on October 12, at 7:00 pm eastern, when NAIWE will host a discussion on your burning grammar questions. The cost for NAIWE members is only $10! Non-members can join for $30. Register today!