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Grammar Hotline Creator Waging War on 'Literary Famine' in U.S.

February 20, 1986|GERRY BRAILO SPENCER | Spencer is a Thousand Oaks free-lance writer. and

Professor Michael Strumpf is very choosey about the written word.

The Moorpark College English professor, who is the creator of the National Grammar Hotline, wages war on a daily basis with what he terms the nation's "literary famine."

From 9 a.m. to noon, from September to June, Strumpf pulls proper English grammar from his vast memory or from piles of grammar books stacked in his tiny office on campus.

Strumpf receives several hundred calls a week from every state in the nation and from overseas. He has gotten calls from Hawaii, France, England, Japan and Germany. Strumpf also has been tapped seven or eight times by the White House to resolve thorny grammatical questions.

Carter Aide Called

"My first call from the White House was from one of Jimmy Carter's aides," Strumpf said. "He wanted to know whether to close a letter with respectfully or respectably."

Strumpf, 51, has taught English for 27 years in junior and senior high schools in the Simi and San Fernando valleys and in the Watts area. For 19 of those years he has also taught at community colleges.

"I never plan on retiring because I get such a kick out of the whole thing," he said.

As a youngster, he was sent to private school, where he was steeped in Greek and Latin and the structure of language. Anything less than perfection was not accepted, he said.

'Language Was an Art Form'

"I was brought up in a family where language was an art form. My family always included me in their wonderful conversations and they used beautiful words."

In addition to calls from advertising executives, secretaries, journalists, housewives and governmental officials, Strumpf takes calls from radio stations on his Grammar Hotline.

One recent day he was answering questions from listeners of station KMBZ in Kansas. He not only answered their questions, but also imparted some of his personal philosophy along the way.

"Oh, boy! Did they tell you to put that comma in there?" he asked one caller. "Boy, were they wrong!"

To another who was concerned about the pronunciation of a word, Strumpf, a native New Yorker, said he just could not get used to the way Californians pronounce Mary, marry or merry--without differentiation. "That just drives me up the wall! All I can say is hang in there. No doubt it has to do with a dialect."

After nine years of fielding questions about the English language, Strumpf co-wrote a book with Auriel Douglas called "Painless, Perfect Grammar," published by Monarch Press, a division of Simon & Schuster. Printed last year, its initial 10,000-copy press run sold out and the second printing is due this month.

Strumpf said questions on capitalization, use of apostrophes in possessives and proper word usage are the most frequent questions asked by those who call his National Grammar Hotline at (805) 529-2321.

The most troublesome words for callers, he said, are:

Advice and advise.

Further and farther.

Loan and lend.

Affect and effect.

Awhile and a while.

Counsel and council.

Compliment and complement.

Between and among.

Fewer and less.

Good and well.

Criteria and criterion.

Can and may.

Principal and principle.

Lay and lie.

Flout and flaunt.

Continual and continuous.

Beside and besides.

Imply and infer.

Complacent and complaisant.

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