Martha Brockenbrough is the founder of National Grammar Day and author of The Game of Love and Death, which comes out April 28 and has received starred reviews from Kirkus Books and Publishers Weekly. Martha recently spoke with the Grammarly team to provide some insight into National Grammar Day and to share her perspective on language.
Grammarly: You established National Grammar Day in 2008. When did you realize that such a holiday was necessary?
Martha: “Necessary” might not be the first word I’d choose. Food, water, love, underpants. All of these are necessary things. But I knew National Grammar Day would be a lot of fun. Fun is necessary, too, and as soon as I learned the holiday did not yet exist, I set about creating it. I was inspired by the high school students I was teaching at the time. They needed a bit of help with their grammar, and I wanted to make the learning experience lively and positive. Everyone can probably remember that teacher who made grammar seem difficult or unpleasant. I wanted to show my students the fun they could have with language. The more they knew about how it worked, the more they could do, much in the same way you play better basketball when you know all of the rules.
Speaking of rules: Much has been said about the fact that many so-called rules in our language aren’t. That’s quite true. But it doesn’t mean people don’t have certain expectations about the grammar we use. Hiring managers, potential dates: People will judge you if your grammar is non-standard, just as they will judge you for wearing a Speedo to a black-tie event (even with a black tie, which would be the worst).
G: What is your biggest grammar pet peeve?
M: I try not to keep too many pet peeves. That said, every time I see “your” instead of “you’re,” my soul shrivels a little more.
G: Is there a grammar rule you don’t mind bending/breaking?
M: There are plenty of so-called “rules” that really and truly aren’t. It’s fine, for example, to begin a sentence with a conjunction. You probably don’t want to do this a lot, because it makes your writing sound choppy. But it’s perfectly fine style. Same goes for ending a sentence with a preposition.
As a novelist, though, I routinely and purposefully bend the language as many ways as I possibly can to create memorable characters who feel authentic. All we have with novels are words, and out of this, we create not only worlds, but all of their inhabitants. Books breathe, in many cases, because of the artful bending of words, punctuation, and expectations. Mark Twain, an absolute genius with language (and a proponent of simplified spelling), depended utterly on making rubber out of rules. Imagine how awful it would be if someone standardized the grammar in Huckleberry Finn. That would be like putting a tasteful blouse on the Venus de Milo.
Again, it’s about context. If you’re applying for a job with the Queen, spray the starch and follow the most formal conventions. If you’re doing something else, then do whatever it takes to do it well.
G: Oxford Comma, yes or no?
M: It depends. I write for a variety of publications. Some follow Associated Press Style, which is a serial comma killer.
Some don’t. When I write books, for example, I use the Oxford comma.
If I were in charge of the world, I suppose I’d urge use of the Oxford comma. It’s easy to point out cases where confusion arises without it. My favorite is the one that says, “We invited the strippers, JFK, and Stalin.” This is not the same as “We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin.” (For the record, I would pay many folded single dollar bills to watch JFK and Stalin strip together.) What’s more, we no longer live in an age where we’re communicating via telegraph, so we don’t need conserve characters in quite the same way we used to, except on Twitter.
That said, the opposite confusion can sometimes arise. Consider this: “For my sister, an orangutan, and Jerome…” It’s unclear whether the speaker’s sister is an orangutan.
This is why you have to pay attention to every sentence you write. Communicating what you mean in a way that other people can understand is the goal. (That and inventing time travel so we can all catch that hot Cold War stripper act.)
G: Why is good grammar important? Isn’t it enough that we all “kind of” understand each other?
M: Tell that to the person who wrote the contract between Rogers Communication and Atlantic Canada. One rogue comma ended up costing Rogers something like $1 million a year. Most of us won’t be in a situation like this, but any time you write a letter, a personal ad, a job application, a Facebook status post, or even a tweet, you’re putting yourself into the world for all to judge and potentially misunderstand. Just as you wouldn’t want to go outside with your pants only “kind of” zipped, you want to give yourself the best chance of making whatever connection you seek. It saves all sorts of heartache and embarrassment, not to mention the occasional heap of cash.
Thank you, Martha! Happy National Grammar Day.
Curious to know what kind of grammar nerd you are? Take Grammarly’s quiz in honor of National Grammar Day.