Monday, March 04, 2013

National Grammar Day

Did you look out the window on Saturday and notice that the heavens had not darkened? Did you fetch the morning paper* from the lawn without having to brush frogs and locusts from your locustgear? Then we can safely conclude that our friends in Wichita were not smitten for daring to use singular "data" in this perfectly sensible 1A hed.

Which seems to me a nice way of celebrating National Grammar Day: separating the sundry peeves, whims and secret handshakes that belong under "style" from the courtly art of grammar. Subject-verb agreement is getting along just fine, no matter what Those Kids with their iPhones and uptalk and singular "data" do. The language is not at risk of being destroyed. "Data" has been an English noun for some centuries now, and nobody should be dismayed if it pulls up its socks and acts like one.


One symptom of that is its flexibility. You could make a case that it's doing something plural ("police statistics show") or singular ("police information shows") in the hed, but since it seems pretty happy being singular, we can let it go about its business. Far less damage ensues than if someone were to bring the production line to a halt for a lecture on why "data" are** plural unto eternity Amen.

The style of data, on the other hand, is complicated, but for a different reason. Declaring "data" to be permanently and uniquely plural sets both you and "data" apart -- you, because it suggests that you're unobservant (and possibly a language bully in the bargain), and "data" because it's the sort of foreign visitor who should only see us on our best behavior. And English is a little too Delta House to play that role very well. When we welcome a new noun in, it's going to find itself drinking too much and looting the Food King before long.

Editors should be eternally vigilant about grammar; after all, grammar is one of the most direct ways the jury can tell whether you're making a libelous claim on your own hook or on the authority of some privileged source. Editors should revere and venerate grammar, and they should learn all sorts of cool tricks that allow them to sink 50-foot grammar shots at halftime while the crowd looks on in awe. But they also need to be the voices who look at random style whims or proclamations from the glass offices and say: Nice rule, but it isn't grammar.

And thus will the unquiet Spirits of National Grammar Days Yet to Come be placated.


* Those of you who still have Saturday papers and Saturday delivery, I mean.
** Pi are round. Bost Bread are square!

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4 Comments:

Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

I have Saturday papers (in the plural, even) and Saturday delivery - what I don't have is a lawn hahahaha

10:15 PM, March 04, 2013  
Blogger fev said...

We could work out a deal on that.

10:20 PM, March 04, 2013  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I could get, hmmm, four different Saturday papers (three of them "local", for some values of) delivered here, but I don't really have a whole lot of use for that compressed dead-tree contraption, nor do I have the time on Saturday to read even one of those estimable publications.

1:13 AM, March 05, 2013  
Anonymous bobell said...

Yabbut what about "media"? And "criteria"? And "agenda"? What's a nitpicker to do?

7:43 AM, March 05, 2013  

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