Columns > Published on March 4th, 2016

HAPPY GRAMMAR DAY: 10 Facts About Grammar You Can Use to Annoy Your Loved Ones

If you were me, you’d celebrate Grammar Day every day. But on this special day, let’s dig up some extra special details about grammar and language that make a Word Nerd's day!

1) 'Grammar' is not grammar

Sure, you’ve probably heard some killjoy announce that this or that rule is not actually a grammar rule. Strictly speaking, the word “grammar” applies to the function of words and how they are combined to form sentences. “Usage” applies to how people actually use language and what habits they have. “Punctuation” applies to the symbols we use to direct the reader on how to read the words—where to pause, stop, apply ownership, etc. “Mechanics” applies to the spelling, capitalization, use of symbols and other conventions we use in writing. We’ve become lazy lately, and we refer to all these topics under the Grammar heading. Personally, I think the sin here is minimal, as we are aiming for concise and clear communication, which is GOOD.

2) Latin is DEAD (sorry, classics majors)

There is a good reason why applying grammatical logic from Latin—such as not splitting infinitives—makes no real sense for English: English is not based on Latin. Sure it accumulated (or kept, since Romans were in Britain before the Anglo-Saxons arrived) some Latin words and phrases over the centuries, but for the most part, English comes to us from the Anglo-Saxon immigrants (invaders) who came to the island in the AD 400s-ish. These people came from the Angeln area of what is now Germany, and even though waves of other languages came—French Norman, Danish, more Latin, Gaelic, etc.—the Anglo-Saxon stuck. In fact, according to The Story of English, the 100 most-used words in the English language are Anglo-Saxon. Man, wife, house, the, live, love, drink, fight, eat, sleep, child, brother, sister, you, is, to, for, but, at, on, in, etc. all come from Anglo-Saxon roots.

3) And-per-se-AND

The number of letters in the English alphabet has varied over the centuries, but just before our current 26-letter alphabet, school kids were taught to recite the alphabet with the ampersand as the 27th letter. (See page 5 of The Dixie Primer, for the Little Folks, from the early- to mid-1800s.) The name “ampersand” comes from the song that used to go “X, Y, Z and per se AND.” Per se is a Latin expression to mean by itself—since just saying “X, Y, Z, AND” was a bit awkward. Over the years, the words “and per se AND” morphed into “ampersand.” The curly symbol, lately co-opted by hipsters and design professionals, is a cursive-y expression of the Latin word et, which means, you guessed it, and. Why it fell away is not exactly clear. Maybe purists decided using a symbol that was used for a word didn’t fit with a list of letters that were used to make all sorts of words. Who knows.

4) How not to spell

If anyone ever says, “I before e, except after c”, tell them to shut the hell up and learn to spell. In fact, it was while learning German that I finally learned a rule I could use. In German, if a word has ie or ei, you generally pronounce the long vowel version of the second letter. So Fleisch (meat) is pronounced with a long-I sound: FLYSH. Liegen (to lie down) is pronounced with a long-e sound: LEEGEN. Sure, this rule isn’t fool proof in English, but it DOES help because, as I said in number 2, English has more in common with German that most other modern languages. It stands to reason that many of our words follow the same patterns of pronunciation. Heist, field, wield, feisty all seem to fit this idea. Though, of course, it being a “rule” of English Grammar, it’s almost certain that you can think of many, many exceptions. When it comes to spelling English words, memorization is really the best way.

5) Not so nice

The meanings of words change all the time. Some words even shift to mean the opposite of the original meaning and then shift back again. Take the word nice, for example. From Bill Bryson’s Mother Tongue:

A word that shows just how wide-ranging these changes can be is nice, which was first recorded in 1290 with the meaning of stupid and foolish. Seventy-five years later Chaucer was using it to mean lascivious and wanton. Then at various times over the next 400 years it came to mean extravagant, elegant, strange, slothful, unmanly, luxurious, modest, slight, precise, thin, shy, discriminating, dainty, and—by 1769—pleasant and agreeable. The meaning shifted so frequently and radically that it is now often impossible to tell in what sense it was intended, as when Jane Austen wrote to a friend, "You scold me so much in a nice long letter . . . which I have received from you."

6) 'Got' is legit. Get over it.

Back in college, I remember some brownnosing coeds schmoozing it up with a notoriously self-important English professor by saying how much the Got Milk? campaign irked them. I didn’t have the words back then to argue with them, but I do remember thinking—what’s the big deal? People say it all the time, and Do you have milk? just sounds way, way too stuffy and wordy. I’m not alone in thinking the verb to get is actually a very useful super verb that transcends its boundaries to mean a whole lot of things:

  • To have – got milk
  • To acquire – get a job
  • To be – get rich
  • To leave – get lost
  • To understand – get it
  • To move from one place to another – get over here
  • To must – you’ve got to go

And on and on. A word like get/got is one of the jewels of the English language. It’s concise, versatile, and strong. What’s not to like? Most writers accept this word and its useful expressions in informal discourse, but it seems that as the line between formal and informal gets ever more blurred. I predict that in the notsofaraway future this word will show up in as much formal communication as it does in catchy advertising and conversational slang. If you’d like to read a great write up on the topic, check out this one by Grammar Girl.

7) We Define Words – Not Dictionaries

Which came first: The Dictionary or the Word? As students, we are taught to look up words in the dictionary when we don’t know the meaning. Dictionaries appear as authorities on words and their meanings. It comes across as the dictionaries deciding upon a meaning for a word and then disseminating that meaning into the world by publishing a word with its attached definition.

This is, of course, entirely backwards. Dictionaries are compiled by people who go into the world looking for words and how they are actually being used. The revered Oxford English Dictionary was compiled by 4 or 5 different editors (and 100s of helpers) over 100 years. The editors consulted countless printed materials to find the actual common usages of thousands of words and kept the information on tiny slips of paper. The editors encountered death, sickness, poverty, political drama, and even one criminally insane contributor who provided definitions to thousands of words. One early editor of the dictionary researched mostly obscure words, while a later editor looked mostly for common words. The dictionary, as a result, is a record of word usage compiled by different people with different agendas at different times. By the time it was done, it needed to be redone because so many words had already changed! So, in fact, a dictionary is a constantly outdated record of how words have been used so far. It does not decide how words are used or even what words are actually words. We decide that. So ain't IS a word. And so is fartscicle.

8) F*ckin' Awesome!

Expletives are the best words in the world. They are old as fuck. And some, like tits, fart, and shit haven’t changed in hundreds of years! Swear words are versatile, interesting, varied, and easily understood across language barriers. The meaning and severity vary by context and inflection, and they can be used as almost any part of speech:

  • Noun: What the fuck is that?
  • Verb: I fucked up.
  • Gerund: Fucking is a great way to burn calories.
  • Progressive verb: This blinking bulb has been fucking with my sanity.
  • Adjective (present participle): This is fucking crazy.
  • Interjection: Fuck!
  • Imperative verb: Fuck off!

And so many more—the multitudes of uses have no end! And they are SO EASY TO LEARN.  If you have small children in your life, then you know first-hand how quickly children pick up how to accurately and effectively apply expletives in the appropriate context without having to be taught. They couldn’t hear you when you told them to pick up their socks, but they heard you loud and clear when you muttered “shit” while trying to locate your glasses. Cheeky little fuckers.

9) Fun with Dicky Birds

There is this thing, this glorious thing, that is responsible for so many expressions ( like tit for tat, bread/dough) that are used in modern English that you, I’m betting, never knew about. It’s called Cockney Rhyming Slang. Here’s how it works:

Cockney rhyming slang is a form of English slang which originated in the East End of London. Many of its expressions have passed into common language…It developed as a way of obscuring the meaning of sentences to those who did not understand the slang…

Rhyming slang works by replacing the word to be obscured with the first word of a phrase that rhymes with that word. For instance, "face" would be replaced by "boat," because face rhymes with "boat race." Similarly "feet" becomes "plates" ("plates of meat"), and "money" is "bread" (a very common usage, from "bread and honey"). Sometimes the full phrase is used, for example "Currant Bun" to mean "The Sun" (often referring to the British tabloid newspaper of that name).

Check out this awesome link for more Cockney Rhyming Slang—old and new. Ever wondered why making fart sounds with your lips is called “blowing raspberries”? Well, because it is a shortened version of “raspberry tart” which, of course, rhymes with “fart.” In fact, there is a whole list of slang words for fart.

  • Cupid’s dart
  • Horse and cart
  • Horse
  • Orson
  • Jam Tart
  • False Start
  • Joe Hart

Oh, and Dicky Birds is rhyming slang for words.

10) No Sex in the Champagne Room

And, godddaammmittt, there is NO SPACE BEFORE AND/OR AFTER A FORWARD SLASH MARK. (Except when quoting poetry, which you are NOT, so stop. Just stoppit. Stoppit now!)

Now go forth and annoy!

About the author

Taylor Houston is a genuine Word Nerd living in Portland, OR where she works as a technical writer for an engineering firm and volunteers on the planning committee for Wordstock, a local organization dedicated to writing education.

She holds a degree in Creative Writing and Spanish from Hamilton College in Clinton, NY. In the English graduate program at Penn State, she taught college composition courses and hosted a poetry club for a group of high school writers.

While living in Seattle, Taylor started and taught a free writing class called Writer’s Cramp (see the website). She has also taught middle school Language Arts & Spanish, tutored college students, and mentored at several Seattle writing establishments such as Richard Hugo House. She’s presented on panels at Associated Writing Programs Conference and the Pennsylvania College English Conference and led writing groups in New York, Pennsylvania, and Colorado for writers of all ages & abilities. She loves to read, write, teach & debate the Oxford Comma with anyone who will stand still long enough.

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