THE UNDERGROUND
GRAMMARIAN

Volume One, Number Eight............November 1977

I would certainly consider it correct professional behavior to describe procedures for teaching and aiding understandings of how communication with visual materials can express, describe and give form and structure to the unique character, technology and spirit of our experience in these late years of the 20th century. George Conrad

Which Hunting in
The Underground Grammarian

M. B. Newton, Jr.
Editor, Pioneer America

IT IS, to be sure, a debatable matter among contemporary grammarians, but, in view of the stalwart stance of The Underground Grammarian in defence of good, clear, correct writing, I can only wonder why that elegant (and we hope, mighty) journal tolerates ambiguous use of which. The point that I want to make is that every civilized device that can be used to clarify writing ought to be carefully cultivated, which is an opinion that the Grammarian surely endorses.

In the September, 1977, Grammarian, which is an outstanding example of the printer's art, I find three instances of softness on which-ism, to wit: "A course which (that!) does not require the sustained mental discipline of expository prose..." "Stay away from courses which (that!) require oral reports..." "‘In the context of the Glassboro situation,' a phrase which (that!) must remind..." These are the only original lapses into which-craft in this number, which is encouraging. But the Grammarian's criticism of that scribble by the musician dealt directly with which clauses and failed to take note of the which-switch that further compounded the awkwardness of the passage, nor did the Grammarian note that "awkward pairing of which clauses" is actually a pair of restrictive clauses, the second restricting the first, and that both require the relative pronoun that.

Of course, the counterattack--if the Grammarian disagrees with me--can be joined on the ground that Dr. Johnson, as quoted in a footnote on page 2, was also soft on which-ism, as are, of course, the King James Version and The Book of Common Prayer. Nevertheless, the struggle, which has gone on for generations, ought not to be resolved by an ad vericundiam, which is a venerable fallacy, but on the basis of greater power for writers.

Homer has some figure or other proclaim of the decadence at Odessius's homestead, "The Fish rots from the head!" Because The Underground Grammarian has become, for many at least, the head of a restoration movement the Grammarian should help stamp out creeping which-ism. Let the antigrammarians quail before our battle cry, which is: "I'd rather fight than which!"

_________

M. B. Newton is not only an editor but also Associate Professor of Geography at Louisiana State University. Although clearly an intransigent grammarian of the old school, he has a certain endearing trait. He wrote, of our decision to publish non-Glassborovian authors: ". . . it will make the turkeys who surround you realize how far the word has gotten and how much respect The Underground Grammarian commands."

Dear Grammarian,

I had lunch with a colleague, and we fell to talking shop. He said that there weren't really any standards by which we might say that English is good or bad. I have heard that often, of course, but never from anyone who did much writing. So I asked, and, sure enough, he hadn't written anything since he left graduate school, and he wasn't about to. Well, I asked, what about his students? Did he make any judgments about their writing? No, he did not, because he never saw any of their writing. He gave what he called "oral" tests sometimes (be grateful--it could be even worse) and never assigned papers, though his discipline is one in which expository writing is ordinarily thought a useful indicator of a student's knowledge and understanding. He confessed, furthermore, that his own "oral" competence was meager but still not reason enough to justify preparing written lectures. Like the lilies of the field, he toils not, neither does he spin; but, unlike the fowls of the air, he does gather into barns--every other Friday in fact.

Well, he founded me dumb, because, while I don't share his grammatical agnosticism, I am aware that I don't know what I think until I've found the way to say it. So I have tried hard to write clearly on this subject so that I can see what I think and judge it, an exciting venture, by the way, from which my sub-literate colleague is excluded.

The least important measurement of English comes from fussing about who and whom and split infinitives. The "rules" (we all know this, don't we?) tell us what English does, not what it must do. Aha! says my oral friend. See! The rules don't tell me what I have to do! And he's right, they don't, unless he'd like to speak conventional English. There's no law of nature that forces us to drive cars to the right of the road, but many think it "correct" to observe that convention.

There are many ways in which English can be conventional. Consider: You are at the police station to identify a culprit. "That's he," you gasp. Have you spoken correctly? No. It will serve you bloody right when a sneering sergeant says, "Whom're you trying to kid? That's a plain-clothes cop." "Correct" English is correct conventionally and in context. Down at the police station the correct form is "That's him!"

It is correct, furthermore, not because the policemen don't know the difference but because they do know the difference. They will know, if you say "That's he," that you are being inappropriately formal, rudely calling attention to what you mistakenly deem one of your many merits, and, possibly, insulting them all by your presumption that they need you to set a good grammatical example.

Mutatis mutandis, we can say that a failure of agreement from Maxine Colm in Laser or a misplaced modifier in an official letter from Phillip Tumminia must be judged wrong and insulting, unless, of course, those things are deliberate insults. In that case they would be correct and insulting. Deliberate rudeness is a valuable and effective way of sending messages, but inadvertent rudeness is simply an outward sign of an inner ineptitude. Which is it, then, when Kenneth Clay sends us a singular verb form to go with data? Does he mean that he scorns our conventions, consciously or not, or is he simply ignorant of the number of data? I would prefer the former, but I suspect the latter. So do you.

Who asserts that there are no standards had better prepare to swallow some camels. He must find no fault in the following, a recent letter to all of us from John Schaub:

Please advise the Faculty Senate Office Secretary, extension 5244, the names of Chairpersons of Dept./Office Promotion and Tenure and Recontracting Committies as soon as possible.

He has to contend that "advise the secretary the names" is all right, since to do otherwise is to assume standards. That's not the end. He would equally have to accept, had Schaub written it, "advise unto the secretary of the names" or perhaps "make advisings toward secretary in regardment of names." And if we should do with this passage what Sidney Smith suggests for flaccid prose and cut out every other word, our standardless turkey would have to defend the result, probably by muttering something about how English keeps changing, you know.

Have I gone too far? Are these examples so absurd that they vitiate the argument? (Are they as absurd as the assertion that the President of the Faculty Senate at Glassboro State College can't spell committees, but that it doesn't matter, since English spelling has changed in the past and will change in the future?) From preposterous premises preposterous conclusions must flow. No standards means no standards; it does not mean some standards that suddenly appear, like warning lights on the dashboard, only when total breakdown is imminent.*

We teachers claim that teaching is a "profession," but we tolerate--and some of us will defend--an amateurish sloppiness in the use of language, the basic tool of teaching. Why can't we get things right? Why must Board Briefs confuse up-to-date with up to date? Why must an AFT circular say insure when ensure is meant? If your physician said that your pantella was strained and decided to put it into attraction, wouldn't you like to sneak a peek at that diploma while he's figuring out which end of the stethoscope gets stuck and where? Would you have a suggestion?

No prudent teacher would put up with a dentist, or even a plumber, who handles his tools as awkwardly as many teachers handle their language. If you want to call yourself a "professional," be sure that you are master of all relevant techniques. In the technique of language, merely to avoid all the "mistakes" of convention and context is not enough, although even that would be refreshing around here. The professional in any calling handles his instruments easily and accurately, even gracefully. So here is another standard that the world (i.e., the taxpayer) will measure us by without caring at all that English changes: A coherent passage of error-free prose is the least we can require of those who take our money as professionals in teaching. In fact, at these prices, we can demand more than elementary conventional correctness. We can demand skill.

Qui s'excuse, s'accuse, but he'll probably be little troubled by me. People who say there's no way to judge English need to believe that. He's not reading this anyway. He's just not into print, you know.

Just as soon as I can walk again, I'm going to invite him to another lunch so I can send him to this great chiropractor I know.

Yours in English,
R. Mitchell, A.C.M.

MELTING POT DEPARTMENT

Rose Glassberg reports that Komiko Murashima will represent the AFT as a member of the Professional Ethnics Committee.

FORGOTTEN, BUT NOT GONE

Alan B. Donovan, long unheard from, writes us all as follows;

The intention of this guidebook is to offer for your consideration and, hopefully, use a comprehensive and detailed presentation . . .

As such, many thanks are due Mary Anne, who with her diligence and obvious command of the art of teaching and encouraging good writing has authored this rather unique document.

We just love, hopefully, the way he authors, don't you? As such, it may be less than rather unique, but it's unique enough for us.

THE PASSIVE STRIKES AGAIN

"Good programs that enhance our image in the community and state are focused upon in this section of the newsletter." (GSCFA)

Brief Notes

THE UNDERGROUND GRAMMARIAN has become a member of the Educational Press Association of America. We subscribe without reservation to their Code of Ethics and can still assure our readers that there will be no changes in our policies or practices.

R. Mitchell of our staff has been promoted to the post of Assistant Circulation Manager. Send letters, mss., examples, whatever, to his attention at Post Office Box 203, Glassboro, New Jersey 08028.

 

* Suppose I had written "eminent." Those who say there are no standards would suddenly decide that there is at least one standard after all, and Glassboro would be treated to a prodigy-turkeys crowing. If I had written "immanent", could they be expected to know that that too was crow-worthy? How many would pronounce such errors unimportant, because English keeps changing, you know? How many, this very moment, are wondering how they can manage to borrow dictionaries without giving their names? back


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