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Good grammar is still important

March 01, 2009|By KATE COLEMAN

My dad died nearly 21 years ago, but I still can see him wince when he'd hear someone ask, "Where's it at?"

"You don't need the 'at,'" he'd explain.

"Where is it?" would satisfactorily pose the question.

I consider myself fortunate to have grown up in a home where English was spoken according to the rules of good grammar.

It wasn't the topic of lectures or lessons. There was nothing starchy or priggish about my parents' proper usage of words and phrases. They naturally spoke and wrote correctly, something I took for granted and for which I never thanked them - although I'm sure it gave me advantages in English tests and the SATs. (Did you notice that I didn't end the middle phrase in that admittedly rather long sentence with the preposition?)

My parents would smile knowing that National Grammar Day is celebrated annually on March 4. The date was designated by MSN Encarta - Microsoft Network's online encyclopedia; it's at encarta.msn.com - and SPOGG, the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar.

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SPOGG was founded in 2004 by Seattle writer and teacher Martha Brockenbrough as a fun way of teaching her students grammar.

Visiting SPOGG's Web site at spogg.org has been fun for me, too. It's nice to know there are other word nerds. The site includes links to dozens of grammar-related blogs. (For the record, I really dislike the word "blog.") Membership is free, but T-shirts and mugs are available for purchase.

The Bad Grammar Hall of Fame provides a playlist of pop songs with grammatical errors.

There's the obvious: The Rolling Stones singing "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction."

I enjoyed listening to the Beatles' "Martha My Dear" and noticing the poetic license: "Take a good look around you to see, that you and me ... were meant to be ... with each other." (Sorry, SPOGG. "You and I" just wouldn't sound right, even though it is.)

I did well in elementary school English, but I don't recall actually being conscious of sentence structure and parts of speech until seventh grade. I loved the hours and hours we spent diagramming sentences in Mrs. Hoffman's class.

Strunk and White's "Elements of Style" was my guide while I was a term paper-loving English major in college. The Associated Press Stylebook has been my always-close-at-hand resource for double-checking the finer points of word usage since I've been writing for this newspaper.

When in doubt - and I often am - it's comforting to find entries with explanations on the ever-elusive "lay" or "lie" and "who" or "whom."

Reading about "good" and "well" has cheered me. "Good," this authority tells us, shouldn't be used as an adverb, but, according to Strunk and White, it "doesn't lose its status as an adjective in a sentence such as I feel good."

"Status as an adjective." I love it, and I bet James Brown is smiling, too.

I don't smile - I flinch - when I hear or read some words in particular usage, even though Webster's New World College Dictionary seems to approve.

The use of grow - as in "to grow a business" - sets my teeth on edge.

"To affect" is listed as a definition of the verb impact, but the lexicographer softens the blow a bit by calling it "a usage objected to by some."

Me! (I guess that should be "I.")

The SPOGG site mentions that some of its members will be celebrating National Grammar Day with Good-Grammar Potlucks at their offices. They'll serve high-fiber foods that are good for the colon.

Bada bing! (Get it? "Colon"?)

But don't worry if you already have plans for National Grammar Day.

Sept. 24 is National Punctuation Day.

Kate Coleman covers the Maryland Symphony Orchestra and writes a monthly column for The Herald-Mail.

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