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Stumped on Picky Punctuation? Cleveland Hot Line Dispenses Grammar Advice on Demand

November 20, 1987|From Times Wire Services

CLEVELAND — When you're stumped by a sticky grammar question, when you can't find the spelling for a word, when you can't remember if it's who or whom, where can you turn?

The answers are only a dial away at the "Grammar Hot Line" run by college professor Margaret W. Taylor.

Her hot line has been in operation since the beginning of the year, and there are a lot of people who need a little help to make sure their writing is letter-perfect.

In the first six months, she logged nearly 3,000 inquiries.

The hot line is the newest of five grammar hot lines operating in Ohio. But Taylor, an assistant professor of English and journalism at Cuyahoga Community College's Eastern Campus in suburban Cleveland, said she didn't know others existed when she proposed the hot line to college officials.

"I felt there was a need because so many people asked me questions about grammar--people in the college, students, of course, and people outside," Taylor said.

Grammar Fan

The Ohio Board of Regents gave her a grant, which covers part of her salary, so she can take hot line calls for a few hours each afternoon and evening.

Taylor confesses to being a longtime fan of grammar and writing, dating to her school days in Terre Haute, Ind., and at Duke University.

She spent 10 years as a reporter at the Dayton Daily News before moving to Cleveland, earning a master's degree and starting her teaching career at Cuyahoga Community College in 1973.

Now, in addition to teaching, she answers calls to the grammar hot line while in her campus office or through an extension at home.

She takes calls for two hours on weekday afternoons and from 7 to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday. An answering machine catches calls that come in at other hours.

"I thought it would just be neat if kids were studying and they came to a question . . . they could just pick up the phone," said Taylor, explaining the reasoning behind evening hours. "It really is a teaching device. I don't feel that it's cheating that they don't have to look it up because I try to give them a little bit extra instead of just the answer."

Besides students, she gets calls from secretaries at area businesses, printers, rubber-stamp makers, sign makers and T-shirt printers. Frequent inquiries include questions about correct punctuation, especially the use of quotation marks, the proper use of the words affect-effect, who-whom and lie-lay and pronouns.

Blames Permissive Education

If she can't answer the question, Taylor uses a stack of dictionaries and reference books to help out her callers.

Taylor blames the trend toward permissive education for the public's lack of knowledge about grammar.

"I think we were in a period of a lack of interest in proper grammar for a long time . . . and I see a few signs that we're pulling up out of that," she said. "But, heaven knows, we still have plenty of problems, because here at the college we get students who have very little interest in grammar."

Not all the calls the hot line receives deal directly with grammar. Sometimes people seek help in writing letters. A nun once wanted to de-sex a prayer. One caller wanted to know how to pluralize Mickey Mouse.

"I do counseling, I take care of the lonely," Taylor added.

Taylor has publicized her hot line by distributing stickers and bookmarks to schools, libraries and callers. The hot line is also in the front of the telephone book under a community services listing.

And she hopes to be included in the next edition of the national Grammar Hot Line Directory, which lists 40 hot lines around the country and two in Canada, most of which are affiliated with colleges or universities.

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