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The Word

Grammartini

A day to toast precision -- and tolerance

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Jan Freeman
February 24, 2008

MARCH, THOUGH A long month, is sadly short on holidays. But this year, there's relief in sight, at least for language watchers. The Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar has declared March 4 a time to celebrate good usage: National Grammar Day.

SPOGG, founded in 2004 by Martha Brockenbrough (and open to all: Go to spogg.org), sends a slightly mixed message. It seeks members "appalled by wanton displays of Bad English" and threatens "mayhem, misery, madness" all around if we ignore the rules. On the other hand, says its manifesto, "we also encourage having a sense of humor about language."

So how to celebrate - with public peeve-floggings or amnesty for sinners? John McIntyre of the Baltimore Sun, who blogs about editing at You Don't Say, has been pondering the question. He's a stickler, of course, but a weathered, humbled stickler. And he worries that Grammar Day will bring out "the strident, self-appointed guardians of language and judges of everyone else's speech and prose."

Let's skip the recriminations, he suggests, and make the day an opportunity to "reflect on our own use of the language, to try to use words more carefully ourselves and to cut everyone else a little slack."

I second the motion, and in that spirit of tolerance, I hereby propose three usage peeves we might give up for National Grammar Day.

Lay vs. laid. This one was suggested by reader William S. Rogers of Middletown, R.I., who recently asked in a letter, "Has the time come simply to accept lay, laid, laid, when lie, lay, lain is called for?" And I thought: Yes, it probably has.

As Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage explains, for 500 years using lay for lie was unremarkable. Then the grammarians got hold of the verbs, and they've spent 200 years trying to straighten us out. But for all their efforts, lay for lie - "I have to lay down" - has gained ground in the spoken language.

The past tense is especially hard to sort out, when "I lay down last night" sounds so much like "I laid down." Then there's lain: When did you last hear lain?

People who've mastered their lies and lays like to say it's easy. But it's not. If it were easy, everyone would get it right.

Was vs. were. This vestige of the disappearing subjunctive inflicts a lot of unnecessary pain. Why don't we just stop worrying about it?

Half a century ago, in A Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage, Bergen Evans told readers either word would do for the past subjunctive. "I wish I was wonderful, suppose it was true, and if I was living in a desert" are all good usage, he said.

On the other hand, he added, a self-conscious writer "can very easily use were where literary English requires was." Just last week, in fact, reader John Hough e-mailed to point out that mistake in Mary McCarthy's "The Group": "Some women, they said, never got over the first man, especially if he were skillful; he left a permanent imprint." If he was skillful, she meant. (And she was a stickler!)

So say were when you're sure: "If I were famous." But if you're puzzled, use was, and you won't be wrong.

Misuses that aren't. Next time you see a list of "commonly confused" words, give it a second look. How many of the "misused" words are actually just misspelled?

Flout may be confused with flaunt, infer with imply, credulity with credibility. But a student who writes it's for its has misspelled a word, not misunderstood it. Forego for forgo, their for they're, loose for lose - all spelling mistakes, not vocabulary goofs.

Spelling is an important and delightful skill, one I wish everyone could master. But anyone preaching precision should be alert to the difference between misspelling and mistaking a word.

Still not ready to renounce nitpicking? If appeals to tolerance don't move you, maybe science will. What if harping on common usage mistakes turns out to be counterproductive?

Over the past few decades, so-called social norms research has suggested that campaigns meant to discourage bad behavior - drinking, pilfering, unsafe sex - can backfire. If the warnings imply that the violation is rampant - "everybody does it" - the behavior may actually increase, as people gravitate toward the norm. If this applies to language, as a recent BBC radio commentary drolly noted, then the more you complain that "everyone misuses literally," the more you communicate that it's no big deal.

If that doesn't help your tolerance level, it's time for the official Grammar Day drink, the Grammartini: a classic martini, straight up, renamed for the day's festivities. A couple of these are guaranteed to soften your attitude toward other people's usage sins. You may even commit a few of your own.

E-mail Jan Freeman at freeman@globe.com. For past columns, go to boston.com/ideas.

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