Like I Said, Don't Worry

NOW THAT I'M A GRAMMAR MAVEN, EVERYONE'S afraid to talk to me. Well, not everyone. Since my grammar book was published this fall, my friends have discovered a new sport: gotcha! The object is to correct my speech, to catch me in the occasional "between you and I" (OK, I admit it). The winner gets to interrupt with a satisfied "aha!"

But people I meet for the first time often confess that speaking with an ""authority'' on language gives them the willies. Grammar, they say apologetically, was not their best subject. And they still don't get it: the subjunctives, the dependent clauses, the coordinating conjunctions. So their English is bound to be flawed, they warn, and I should make allowances. They relax when I tell them that I'm not perfect either, and that I don't use technical jargon when I write about grammar. You don't have to scare readers off with terms like gerund and participle to explain why an -ing word like bowling can play so many different roles in a sentence. With the intimidating terminology out of the way, most people express a lively, even passionate, interest in English and how it works. As a reader recently told me, "I don't need to know all the parts of a car to be a good driver."

Grammarians and hairsplitting wanna-bes have always loved to argue over the fine points of language. What surprises me these days is the number of grammatically insecure people who are discussing English with just as much fervor, though without the pedantry. As a guest author on radio call-in shows and online chats, I've found that the chance to air a linguistic grievance or pose a question in a nonjudgmental atmosphere often proves irresistible. "Is irregardless OK?" a caller hesitantly asks. "I hear it so much these days." (No.) Or, "Is sprang a word?" (Yes.) "Media is, or media are?" (Are, for the time being.) "I saw an ad with the word alright, spelled A-L-R-I-G-H-T. Is it correct?" (No, it's not all right.) "If I was? Or if I were?" (It depends.) I love it when people who say they hated grammar in school get all worked up over like versus as, or convince versus persuade, or who versus whom. Obviously it wasn't grammar per se that once turned them off. It was the needless pedagoguery--the tyranny of the pluperfects, the intransitives and all the rest. The truth is that people love talking about words, about language. After years as an editor at The New York Times Book Review, I can vouch that almost everybody gets something wrong now and then--a dangler here, a spelling problem there, a runaway sentence, beastly punctuation. Those who regularly screw up would like to do better, and even the whizzes admit they'd like to get rid of a weakness or two.

So, is grammar back? Has good English become . . . cool?

Before you laugh, download this. Thanks to the computer, Americans are communicating with one another at a rate undreamed of a generation ago--and in writing. People who seldom wrote more than a memo or a shopping list are producing blizzards of words. Teenagers who once might have spent the evening on the phone are hunched over their computers, gossiping by e-mail and meeting in chat rooms. Wired college students are conferring with professors, carrying on romances and writing home for money, all from computer terminals in their dorm rooms. Many executives who once depended on secretaries to "put it in English" are now clicking on REPLY and winging it.

The downside of all this techno-wizardry is that our grammar isn't quite up to the mark. We're writing more, and worse, than ever before. (If you don't believe this, check out a chat room or an electronic bulletin board. It's not a pretty sight.) The ease and immediacy of electronic communication are forcing the computer-literate to think about their grammar for the first time in years, if ever. It's ironic that this back-to-basics message should come from cyberspace. Or is it? Amid the din of the information revolution, bombarded on all sides by technological wonders, we can hardly be blamed for finding in grammar one small sign of order amid the chaos.

There is evidence of this return to order elsewhere in our society, too. Perhaps the "family values" mantra, for better or worse, is nothing more than a call for order in a culture that seems to have lost its moral bearings. At any rate, laissez-faire grammar bashers who used to regard good English as an impediment to spontaneity and creativity are seeing the light--and it's not spelled L-I-T-E.

But what about those of us whose "lex" education is a dim memory? The very word grammar evokes a visceral response--usually fear. If it makes your hair stand on end, you're part of a proud tradition. The earliest grammarians, bless their shriveled hearts, did English a disservice by appealing more to our feelings of inferiority than to our natural love of words. They could never quite forgive our mongrel tongue for not being Latin, but felt that English could redeem itself somewhat by conforming to the rules of Latin grammar. The word grammar, in fact, originally meant "the study of Latin." All this may help explain a couple of silly no-nos from the past, discredited by the most respected 20th-century grammarians: those inflexible rules against splitting an infinitive and ending a sentence with a preposition.

Surely no school subject has been more detested and reviled by its victims than grammar. Some people would rather have a root canal than define the uninflected root of a word. At the same time, the ability to use language well appeals to our need to be understood, to participate, to be one of the tribe. It's no wonder so many of the people I meet confess to being grammatically inadequate, yet fascinated by words.

My message to these people, delivered from the lofty heights of my newly acquired mavenhood, is this: stop beating up on yourselves. It's only a grammatical error, not a drive-by shooting. Words are wonderful, but they're not sacred. And between you and I (aha!), nobody's perfect.