Ancient attitudes to grammar still survive: many people are in awe of it, know little about it, tend to fear or dislike it, often find it baffling and boring if exposed to it at school, and yet a minority is fascinated by it: a field in which precise scholarship and nit-picking pedantry have coexisted for centuries.
(Sidney Greenbaum, "Grammar," in The Oxford Companion to the English Language. Oxford University Press, 1992)
Whether your approach to grammar is descriptive (scholarly) or prescriptive (nitpicking), March 4 is a day when we should all get along. Or perhaps a day on which we should all get along. Either way, March 4 is National Grammar Day.
Hosted this year by Mignon Fogarty (aka Grammar Girl), National Grammar Day was established in 2008 by Martha Brockenbrough, founder of the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar (SPOGG) and author of Things That Make Us [Sic]. Because SPOGG's mission is not only to "encourage the use of standard English grammar and spelling" but also to foster "a sense of humor about language (and other things, as well)," we're happy to play along. Okay?
We've chosen to mark the occasion by paying homage to a common grammatical structure that's rarely taught in school. A structure as simple as the particle eh? in Canada and eh no? in Scotland. And sometimes as annoying as the American huh? and the almost universal okay?
You're referring to the tag question, aren't you?
Yes indeed. A tag question (or in Britain, a question tag) is a question added to a declarative sentence, usually at the end. More common in spoken English than in formal prose, tags serve as discourse markers to engage the listener and invite agreement. As Randal Graves says (and tags) in the movie Clerks, "There's nothing more exhilarating than pointing out the shortcomings of others, is there?"
So this sentence also ends with a tag question, doesn't it?
Right again. Tag questions are usually negative after a positive statement, and positive after a negative statement. Linguists call this "contrasting polarity." But then you're probably not paying attention anymore, are you?
In the feud between descriptive and prescriptive grammarians, we try to avoid taking sides--especially on National Grammar Day. Still, it's worth remembering that grammar is not just a cranky exercise in pointing out the stylistic shortcomings of others. Grammar matters because it allows us to talk about language, and language (so we've heard) is a defining characteristic of being human.
Or as Bart Simpson says, "Grammar is not a time of waste." Is it?
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