I would say that a debate is raging in our culture over whether or not we need to preserve the formal rules of grammar, but the sad truth is that there are too few defenders of grammar for a debate to rage. I am lonely in my fervency. Nevertheless, a few recent books and articles have brought the dispute between grammar snobs and grammar slobs to the fore.
Pundit of punctuation Lynne Truss tried to rally readers to her “zero tolerance approach to punctuation” with her bestseller Eats, Shoots, and Leaves. Alas, Birmingham, England didn’t heed the call. In January, the city council abolished apostrophes from street signs, inviting criticism from pro-grammar organizations like the “Apostrophe Protection Society,” and from our own students at VanDamme Academy, who condemned the decision in a paper written for Mrs. Battaglia’s (or “Mrs. Battaglias,” if we follow the Birmingham precedent) writing class. “If children grow up there, they will learn not to put apostrophes in possessive words,” said 8-year-old Greta. “Usually kids learn from their surroundings.”
This debate has also been given center stage unwittingly by President Obama. Obama, widely praised as a consummate intellectual, has been criticized by advocates of grammar for committing such common blunders as the inversion of “me” and “I.”
In a February New York Times op-ed, Patricia T. O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman echoed the sentiments of many Americans when they defended President Obama against the “grammar junkies,” claiming that the rules for pronouns are 19th-century creations that have no necessity in reality.
To illustrate my answer, I brought the following example into my Room 4 grammar class. Rather than the innocuous, “President Bush graciously invited Michelle and I,” what if President Obama had said, “Michelle likes President Bush better than I.” Is this a mere difference of opinion about the former President, or a scandal? The ambiguity is resolved with a universal understanding of the rules of grammar.
“Michelle likes him better than I,” as my grammar students can tell you, contains an elliptical adverb clause with “I” as the subject, and means, “Michelle likes him better than I like him.” On the other hand, “Michelle likes him better than me,” contains an elliptical clause with “me” as the direct object, and means, “Michelle likes him better than she likes me.”
So, if you whose children are gaining a thorough mastery of the rules of grammar have ever asked yourselves, “Does my child know grammar better than me?” the answer is no, he should know you better. And by the time he graduates, he will know better than to ask the question like that.
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