While in California visiting family members, I decided to hawk my latest book, The Big Ten of Grammar: Identifying and Fixing the Ten Most Frequent Grammatical Errors. I made arrangements to meet with the "Head of School" of one of the prestigious college preparatory high schools in Los Angeles, a school that has an unusually impressive record of graduates being admitted to Ivy League universities.
After exchanging pleasantries, I got down to business. I pulled the book out of my briefcase and handed her a copy. I began telling her about it. I did not get very far. She interrupted me even before opening the front cover saying, "Dr. Bradshaw, we could not possibly use your book." To say the least, I was taken aback.
I naturally asked why. She answered, "It has a grammatical error on the front cover." My heart sunk! How could I and the publisher have missed a grammatical error on the cover? I quickly glanced at the copy I was holding and could see no obvious error. So, I said, "I don't see a grammatical error. Would you please point it out to me?"
She was quick to reply. "In the initials of the academic degree after your name, you have "PhD" without a period; you should have a period after the "h." It should read, "Ph.D." I breathed a sigh of relief: I knew she was wrong and the front cover was correct.
I went on to explain that in the Appendix, "Keeping Up-To-Date: Ten Short Reminders," I address this very subject. I pointed out that now most recognized authorities on grammar, including The Chicago Manual of Style and Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, recommend omitting periods in all academic degrees and professional certifications, like RN and CPA. I went on to explain that this was a recent trend, so it was understandable she was not aware of it. I also suggested that being aware of recent trends in grammar was all the more reason for her school to use my book in its English classes. "Being an elite college preparatory high school," I said, "it is important that your students be up to date on all grammatical standards, as they would be in any other discipline."
I was surprised with her answer: "Well, I still cannot use your book. Even if the front cover is correct, most people would think it is incorrect, and it is important what people think."
I just couldn't keep from saying something about that. I probably should have been more diplomatic, but I said, "So, quality education is more about what people think than what is actually true! Really?" Needless to say, that school is not using my book.
Compare this with a large public school district in St. Louis, where the administration ordered over three hundred copies of my book -- not for the students, but for teachers and non-teaching staff. I also have been engaged to conduct seminars on grammar for staff members. I acknowledge that it is important for schools to teach young people social skills as well as academic subjects, and one of those skills is the value of making the right impression on others. But when it comes to making a good impression or teaching the accepted standards of a particular discipline, it seems to me that it is the responsibility of any school to teach the accepted standards.
Many people tell me they do not think using correct grammar is all that important. But one does not expect that attitude to prevail in what is supposedly an elite college preparatory school: one would expect the goal to be academic excellence rather than popular perception. But, at least in this school, that is not the case. And when that is the attitude in schools, it is no wonder that all surveys indicate the United States is falling behind most other Western nations in academic achievement.
Standards are standards! We, as a society, readily acknowledge the need for setting and adhering to the highest standards in scientific study and practices, in business practices, in mathematics, in the study of history, in manufacturing, in legal procedures, in food preparation, in computer technology and on the list goes. So, why should we not expect the highest standards in grammatical practices?
I may be out of tune with popular opinion of the day, but to a large degree I blame the current emphasis on becoming a paperless society, on the current obsession with texting and on the practice of quickly writing e-mails. It used to be that we wrote something and looked over it carefully before sending it. I do not expect us to return to writing letters longhand or typing them and mailing them via the United States Postal Service; e-mails would not be so bad if we carefully proofread them before pushing the send button. Texting, on the other hand, is an invitation for ignoring nearly all standards of grammar. An occasional text would be no problem, but so many people in today's society seem to be obsessed with texting all hours of the day and night.
We cannot just blame our schools and our young people. I see adults of all ages taking the kinds of shortcuts with grammar that are eroding grammatical correctness. It's time that all of us take some responsibility and do what is needed to promote respect and honor for the highest standards of grammatical practices.