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UT Austin language paramedic feels public’s pain over use of grammar

Personally, Dr. Elisabeth Piedmont-Marton doesn’t lose any sleep over other people’s grammar. But she knows that some people do. In fact, she knows that a lot of people do.

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AUSTIN, Texas — Personally, Dr. Elisabeth Piedmont-Marton doesn’t lose any sleep over other people’s grammar. But she knows that some people do. In fact, she knows that a lot of people do.

Piedmont-Marton runs the grammar hot line at UT, a service for students as well as residents in the Austin community who are having a “what is the correct way” moment. She has heard it all — down to the administrative assistant innocently asking a question about a business letter she’s writing — to the mother and daughter who are duking it out over pronoun usage.

“When they have spent hours arguing over whether it is correct to say ‘It is I,’ or ‘It is me’,” you have to wonder if they shouldn’t be exploring something else about their relationship,” said Piedmont-Marton, who takes her job seriously, but with a healthy dose of humor.

Whatever the reasons, people do call 475-VERB, more often than one might think.

“They call to confess, to settle bets, to gather ammunition for arguments with their bosses and to voice jeremiads (tirades) about the state of American English,” Piedmont-Marton said. “I imagine that answering the grammar hot line is a lot like answering other kinds of hot lines. “We aren’t stopping arterial bleeding, giving instructions for CPR, or delivering babies over the phone, but we do offer a calm, competent response to anonymous callers buffeted by the shifting winds of grammar and usage.”

Most people who call the hot line want Piedmont-Marton to quote a rule on the correct use of grammar, but in many cases she answers that there is no real reason for the way something is done. “There are grammar ‘rules’ that date from the 18th century, and I think everyone should agree to give some of these up,” she said. “People are very afraid of making an error, but really they have a lot more latitude than they give themselves credit for.

“I try to be as diplomatic as I can, but basically tell them they are worrying about a problem that doesn’t exist.”

Piedmont-Marton, who received her Ph.D. in English from UT Austin in 1992, works in the University’s Undergraduate Writing Center, where the grammar hot line actually rings at her desk. She has taught college English and worked as a textbook writer and editor.

“Some people who call in get mad at my answers and question my credibility,” said Piedmont-Marton. “I politely respond that the information is not only free, but optional.”

She also writes the tongue-in-cheek “Ask Miss Grammars” column featured in the center’s “Writer’s Block” newsletter. The writing center was established in 1993 and provides a free drop-in service to help students improve their planning, writing, revising and editing skills, working one-on-one with a consultant.

In her column, Piedmont-Marton’s alter ego, Miss Grammars, receives a query from someone who has counted 4,312 prepositions “just on the first page” of the newspaper, and believes that writers are supposed to be frugal with prepositions and not just “throw them all over the place.” Isn’t it true that you shouldn’t “start up” something when you can just “start it,” the person asks Miss Grammars.

“I am envisioning someone sitting at their kitchen table with the newspaper, a highlighter and a pair of scissors,” she laughed. In reply, Piedmont-Marton writes that sometimes prepositions are necessary. “Make doesn’t mean the same thing as make out, nor kiss as kiss off,” she said. In some cases, Piedmont-Marton just prescribes a chill pill (as she did for someone in terrible anguish because her boss had a habit of misplacing his modifiers).

“Don’t misunderstand,” she said. “We take apostrophes very seriously and think everyone else should, too. We just don’t want to be the cultural handmaidens of punctuation.”

On most occasions, though, she applauds people for their vigilance and persnicketiness as foot soldiers in the war against sloppy grammar.

“I can understand that people want the rules to be clear and for us to make sure everyone follows them. They want the world to be the way it was when they were in school and learned the cold, hard facts about coordinating adverbs and cumulative adjectives.

“We can’t always offer callers this permanence, but we can usually reassure them that there are rules for who and whom, that, yes, you MUST use an apostrophe to indicate possession, and that those who say they have been laying in the sun must be hens.”