English Lives. Tell The Grammar Police.

  • Playlist
  • Download
  • Embed
    Embed <iframe src="http://www.npr.org/player/embed/129647730/129647745" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no">
  • Transcript

Roy Peter Clark of the Poynter Institute says we ought to remind ourselves that language lives, breathes and learns more as it goes along. He advises professionals to write carefully, but not defensively and certainly not drably. Host Scott Simon speaks with Clark about his new book, The Glamour of Grammar: A Guide to the Magic and Mystery of Practical English.


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

We live in a world afflicted with anxieties: about the economy and unemployment, Iraq and Afghanistan, North Korea and Iran, fine lines and wrinkles, global warming and meteorites. But you know what many people seem to write to us about - oh, wait, should that be write about to us?�Grammar.�

If you generalize a gender reference or drop a gerund out of tense, language hawks descend from the World Wide Web to peck out your eyes.

Roy Peter Clark, vice president and senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, says maybe we ought to remind ourselves that language lives, breathes, and learns more as it goes along. He advises professionals to write carefully, but not defensively, certainly not drably.��

His book, "Writing Tools," is becoming a small classic. His new book is "The Glamour of Grammar: A Guide to the Magic and Mystery of Practical English."

Roy Peter Clark joins us from the studios of Georgia Public Broadcasting in Atlanta, where he's attending the Decatur Book Festival.

Roy, thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. ROY PETER CLARK (Author): Scott, it's my pleasure to be here.

SIMON: And you say - you open the book by saying you dont want to give people rules so much as a box of tools.

Mr. CLARK: Well, that's what my book is trying to do. It's to help people remember that language not only lives inside of them, but they have the ability to live inside the language, to feel its power, to feel its glamour.

SIMON: A lot of people think - to get to some of the fine points in your book -a lot of people confuse literal and figurative.

Mr. CLARK: And they have for a long time. Many famous writers, including Mark Twain and many others, have used literal to mean figurative or as an intensifier. As in: her brains literally exploded when she heard the professor speak.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. CLARK: So you know, unless we're going to call in the cleaning crew, this can't be literally true. But in fact, people often mean figuratively when they say literally. There's a weird category of words which I now have learned are called contranyms. Have you ever heard of that?

SIMON: No, never.

Mr. CLARK: OK. So a contranym is a word which means its opposite. There's some obvious examples. Cleave means to separate and it means to stick together. How's that possible? Sanction means to allow and to prohibit.

SIMON: That's right.

Mr. CLARK: So it doesn't surprise me that we should find a word like literal that winds up meaning both itself and its opposite.

SIMON: Now, I would characterize all the examples you've given, you've just given, as ironic, except, Roy, I dont even say ironic any more, because I find when I'm on the verge of saying ironic, I probably mean incongruous.

Mr. CLARK: I think especially people mean coincidental. It's a sort of odd coincidence these two things happened at the same time. I think one of the traditional meanings of irony is that you don't mean the literal denotations of the text, that you're saying those words but you mean the opposite.

Often used in satire, as when Jonathan Swift in "A Modest Proposal." And look at that title, "A Modest Proposal." And what is modest? His proposal that the excess children and babies in Ireland be eaten in order to decrease the excess population.

SIMON: I put out the word on Twitter, Roy, that we'd be talking to you, because our listeners have such an interest in grammar. Let me run a few quick questions by you, if we could.

Mr. CLARK: Great.

SIMON: Enderby in Albuquerque asks: Can we give up on lie and lay already?

Mr. CLARK: The problem is that the past tense of lie happens to be lay. My mother says remember that lie means to recline. Just listen to those sounds. And lay means to place.

SIMON: So lay the cup on the table, lie back and think of England.

Bridget Cochrane(ph) asks: How long do you think it's going to take texting to kill good grammar?�

Mr. CLARK: Well, you know, I don't think technology kills good grammar. I think technology, new forms of expression, they facilitate the evolution of the language. One person's 140 character tweet is another person's new interesting genre to work with.

This is a wonderful thing. As language grows, as semantic change takes place, it gives us the opportunity to rethink the problems that exist in our culture, to find the appropriate language to try to meet them. What good is freedom of expression if we lack the means to express ourselves?

SIMON: Roy Peter Clark of the Poynter Institute. His new book, "The Glamour of Grammar: A Guide to the Magic and Mystery of Practical English." Roy, thanks so much.

Mr. CLARK: My pleasure, Scott.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.