Grammar Smarts

Grammar has become a hot topic recently. When I was a university student during the end of the Cold War many professors lamented that students, including myself, didn’t have a firm understanding of English grammar. At the beginning of each year these professors would dutifully suggest that we read Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style to help us decide where to place a comma, how to avoid a run-on sentence, and how to elude the terrible split infinitive. Fans of this brief book are legion and I own at least two well-worn copies.

Devotees of Strunk and White’s compact guide will be disappointed by Stanley Fish’s critique of the venerable classic.  Fish, a controversial professor of English, reviled and denounced by many of his colleagues for his provocative ideas, has written a guide to help us all compose the perfect sentence. How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One is a beautifully and clearly written examination of writing and the structure of language. But this isn’t a dry checklist of rules, Fish has produced an erudite and entertaining exploration of great writing from the usual suspects, Shakespeare, Austen… and a few surprises, such as Elmore Leonard.

I’d be remiss not to mention Lynne Truss’s bestseller: Eats, shoots & leaves: the zero tolerance approach to punctuation. Oddly, an edition with lovely pictures was published in 2006.  These books, including those Truss adapted for children, teach grammar with a sense of humour, which explains, I suppose, how a book about commas became a bestseller.

Jila Ghomeshi, a professor of linguistics at my alma mater, the University of Manitoba, argues in a book titled, Grammar Matters: The Social Significance of How We Use Language, that proper grammar doesn’t exist. Ghomeshi discusses the book in an interview published in a local newspaper and suggests that consistency of language is more important that grammatical correctness when it comes to “good” writing.

After countless hours of proofreading to avoid split infinitives and misplaced commas, I’m compelled to wonder: What’s the matter with grammar? Why do some people take grammar so seriously? Whose grammar counts as good grammar?

Luckily, the Winnipeg Public Library, Arbeiter Ring Publishing and the Manitoba Editors’ Association will present a panel discussion that will explore grammar and the politics of language. Participants include Jila Ghomeshi, journalist Morley Walker, editor Bev Phillips, and the panel will be moderated by Jenny Gates. The debate will take place on Thursday, April 14th at 7:00 pm  in the Carol Shields Auditorium at the Millennium Library. Please join us for what will certainly be a lively discussion about grammar, one of the hottest topics in town!


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