Skip to main content

Why Palin doesn't need National Grammar Day

By Robert Lane Greene, Special to CNN
  • Robert Lane Greene says devoted grammarphiles invented National Grammar Day
  • He says group corrects, debunks grammatical errors, gives slide to song titles
  • Worries that ungrammatical celebs, politicians hurt language overblown, Greene says
  • Greene: "Misunderestimate" Sarah Palin at your own peril; she knows how to communicate

Editor's note: Robert Lane Greene is a correspondent for The Economist and writes for the magazine's language blog, Johnson. His book on the politics of language around the world, "You Are What You Speak" (Random House) will be published next week. He is an adjunct assistant professor in the Center for Global Affairs at New York University and a term member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

(CNN) -- Friday is National Grammar Day, a commemoration of sorts begun in 2008 by the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar. The cheerful grammarphiles there have written a song promoting their cause, but while having fun, they're also doing good.

Their website, for example, knocks down two old myths: that you can't end a sentence in a preposition and that you mustn't split an infinitive. Fine English writers have been doing both for centuries.

At the same time, the good folks at the society have made a playlist of songs with titles that offend their sense of grammar, such as Bob Dylan's "Lay, Lady, Lay," "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" from the Rolling Stones and "Who Do You Love" by Bo Diddley. It's all in fun -- would anything be more ridiculous than Diddley singing "Whom Do You Love"?

But the group has put its finger on a common concern: Is our language going to heck in a handbasket, and are our celebrities and leaders, people whom Americans look up to, misusing it more and more? The answer, to many, is a clear yes.

Take former President George W. Bush. The leader of the free world, the most powerful man on Earth, spent eight years in the White House mangling language so memorably that one writer, Jacob Weisberg of Slate, made a one-man industry of "Bushisms," available in book and calendar form.

Everyone has a favorite. Mine is probably this: "Families is where our nation finds hope, where wings take dream." A close second was the president's public concern about out-of-control medical malpractice lawsuits: "We got issue in America. Too many good docs are getting out of business. Too many OB-GYNs aren't able to practice their, their love with women across this country."

Bush knew that language skill was important: As he put it, "You teach a child to read, and he or her will be able to pass a literacy test." At the first National Grammar Day, in 2008, he sent a congratulatory letter to the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar. The group (ironically?) posts it prominently at At least Bush has a sense of humor. He once admitted,"In my sentences I go where no man has gone before." It's true: The man has talent.

Some people see the second coming of Bush in another Republican, Sarah Palin. The former Alaska governor made Twitter twitter when she called on peaceful Muslims to "refudiate" Video the mosque near ground zero.

More recently, she raised eyebrows by saying "WTF" twice in an interview. It's not clear if that's because "F" stands for a vulgarity, or because one of the nation's top politicians was using teen-speak in the first place. Where have Lincoln, Kennedy and Reagan, with their memorable rhetoric, gone? And who is this woman to think she might stand beside them?

Opinion: In defense of Sarah Palin's English

Let me offer a contrary view: Palin is as masterly with language as Bush was not. She uses her unique way of speaking to devastating political effect. She has every confidence in her ability to reach her audience. Bush was reduced to half-apologizing for his stumbles. Palin owns them.

After "refudiate," she sent a follow-up tweet. "English is a living language. Shakespeare liked to coin new words too. Got to celebrate it!" With trademark confidence, she turned the tables on the pointy-heads who mock her.

Twitter is the perfect medium for her. It doesn't involve constructing a complicated argument. Its 140-character limit allows her to get in a quick jab, and she uses it sharply. As for style, when she wants, she owns a countrified dialect in her tweets: At the beginning of an Alaskan snowmobile race, she sends a shout-out to her husband, Todd, in the race, with a brief "Iron dogs Roarin'." Her supporters love it.

I was at Palin's coming-out speech at the 2008 Republican National Convention. She may not have written her line about the difference between a pit bull and a hockey mom ("lipstick"), but she delivered it perfectly. Watch it again. The crowd roared. She drew increased confidence and swagger as she went on. At the beginning she was an unknown. By the end, she was the Sarah Palin you know today. She now overshadows, in her ability to grab attention, the entire 2012 Republican field.

So on National Grammar Day, remember: Language is about communicating effectively, not just memorizing some highfalutin' rules. Bo Diddley knows that. So does Palin. Democrats (and Republicans) "misunderestimate" her at their peril.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Robert Lane Greene.