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Group Led by Seattle Writer Promotes Good (Not Perfect) Grammar

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on WORDMASTER: Martha Brockenbrough, a writer in Seattle and founder of SPOGG, the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar. Five thousand people get her free e-mails about grammar, usage and what she calls "related outrages," and she has a blog at her Web site, She's always watching for errors like misplaced modifiers.

MARTHA BROCKENBROUGH: "I found one last week in a letter home from school. They were encouraging us to have our daughter apply to pre-school and they said 'Believing in a nurturing environment, our preschool is located in a house.' Well, 'our preschool' is the subject of that sentence. Does our preschool believe in the nurturing environment, or do the teachers? And so it's the sort of thing that can be confusing.

"And when you step back a minute, and you think about all the problems in the world that come from bad communication, well, how many of them, if we just took a little bit of care with our language, could we prevent?"

RS: "How would you rewrite that sentence?"

MARTHA BROCKENBROUGH: "I would probably break it into two sentences. I would say 'We believe in creating a nurturing environment for our preschoolers. So, we've put our preschool in an actual house, instead of a traditional academic building.' Something like that."

AA: "I'm curious, as a grammar activist, have you faced any opposition or what we now call 'pushback' in your efforts?"

MARTHA BROCKENBROUGH: "Well, everyone who writes in the public eye gets criticism. So I'm pretty regularly told 'You're stupid,' and I would take it a lot more seriously if they used the apostrophe instead of just Y-O-U-R. But there are two kinds of pushback that I do think about and I do take seriously, and I'll try to address them.

"So linguists tend to disdain prescriptive grammarians. So they say, 'Oh, language evolves and language isn't the rules that have been codified, sometimes even centuries ago, but it's how living speakers use it.' And I think that there's a bit of truth and wisdom to that, and that's why I'm the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar, not perfect grammar. I do think that there's some flexibility.

"The second objection is when people say, 'Well, isn't grammar sort of racist and classist, that these rules are created by rich white folk and for people who are using their own legitimate and consistent dialect, isn't this totally unfair?' You know, there probably is some truth to that. But, on the other hand, let's look at clothes as an example. You're not going to make it very far in the business world if you're not dressed to the code."

RS: "How have you seen this Web site evolve?"

MARTHA BROCKENBROUGH: "Well, I would love to have the time to post more frequently. I would also love to get more members and have people, when they find ungrammatical roads signs, send them in. They do it to a certain extent, but for right now it's just me. It would be great to be able to get into schools and show that it can be fun and funny to find errors and correct them. I don't think you need to be mean or snotty about it. We're also starting National Grammar Day. The first one is next year, on March fourth, which is not only a date, it's a complete sentence. ..."

AA: "How's that?"

RS: "How's that?"

AA: "Oh, march forth! March, M-A-R-C-H, forth, F-O-R-T-H."

MARTHA BROCKENBROUGH: "Yep, march forth for good grammar!"

AA: "Now, last question here. Earlier, we heard your kids in the background playing. Now I'm curious, what are you doing to put them on the road to good grammar, and are you afraid that maybe when they grow up, because of what their mom's been doing, that they're actually going to rebel against it?"

MARTHA BROCKENBROUGH: "My youngest is three, and she already knows the difference between 'can I' and 'may I' and I think that's just because she's heard it. And so when my kids do make little mistakes, I don't stop them and correct them, but I will repeat their question or their comment back using the correct grammar, and I'm hoping they'll eventually pick it up."

AA: "And for those who may not be clear on the difference between 'can I' and 'may I,' would you like to explain that?"

MARTHA BROCKENBROUGH: "If you 'can' pick up a fifty pound box of books, that means you're strong. But if you 'may,' that means that you have someone's permission to do so."

AA: Martha Brockenbrough, founder of SPOGG, the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar. And that's WORDMASTER for this week. With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.