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    When Proper Grammar Makes One Ignorant

    Wednesday, March 03, 2010

    I write for a living. So do most of my friends. We care about language use, and sometimes we debate a particular issue of grammar. Often we point to historical sources to support our views, but sometimes the sources disagree.

    Consider the use of hopefully in the sentence "Hopefully it won't rain."

    When asked what he would say to a friend who used hopefully in this manner, the late, great Isaac Asimov responded that he would not have such friends.

    I love Isaac Asimov, and he gave a pretty funny reply. But when grammar is used as a measuring rod for friendship, something's wrong.

    Purists would argue that when the adverb hopefully is used in the example above, it isn't modifying any specific word or phrase. Recently, however, hopefully has gained acceptance as a "sentence adverb," which is to say it can modify an entire sentence. See "Grammar Girl's" discussion of hopefully.

    A similar debate rages on about the "serial comma." (Some may fault me for discussing punctuation in a grammar post, but for most people "grammar" is a catch-all for correct language.) For journalists, a list such as "peaches, porridge and poultry" should have only one comma. For most everyone else, such lists need two commas to avoid potential confusion, as in "I'd like to thank my parents, God and Coach Simmons."

    I'd suggest that debating the serial comma is like arguing whether (or not) to extend one's pinky while sipping tea. If you're drinking from a mug and need that pinky to help hold it, by all means do so. If you're using a more delicate teacup and the pinky won't fit, curl it under or stick it out - whichever you prefer. True gentility does not judge people whose preference differs.

    When we use good grammar, we show respect to our readers by adhering to a standard that makes our words and meaning easier to grasp. If as a result we appear intelligent and trustworthy, that is merely a fringe benefit.

    When grammar is used to judge other people, however, it becomes snobbery. Snobbery is prejudice, and prejudice is a matter of ignorance. So yes, it is possible for proper grammar to lead a person into ignorance. Fortunately, with an open mind, that pitfall is easy to avoid.

    - Lester Smith