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Hotline the Last Word on Grammar

Language: Moorpark College instructor receives about 300 calls a week from around the world.

October 05, 1998|REGINA HONG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

MOORPARK — Michael Strumpf doesn't have an elaborate office: He works out of cramped quarters in Moorpark College. His equipment includes just a phone and answering machine. He has a staff of one: himself.

What matters most is in Strumpf's head: a knowledge of English grammar gained over decades that he imparts without cost to all who call his National Grammar Hotline.

Strumpf recently informed callers from Saudi Arabia and Israel about the correct use of the semicolon. He answered a query from a White House secretary wondering whether to sign a letter "Respectively Yours" or "Respectfully Yours." He talked to another caller about the difference among "epitaph," "epaulet" and "epithet."

"The fact that so many people call is an indication of the times, that people are frustrated and value the need for proper communication," said Strumpf, a 64-year-old Moorpark College English instructor, who created the hotline 29 years ago.

He never tries to embarrass callers. He often praises them for contacting him. Strumpf started the hotline with the belief that good grammar is the foundation for good communication.

Years of appearances on TV talk shows and a book published last year, "Painless Perfect Grammar," have made the grammar hotline well known. Strumpf said he receives an average of 300 calls a week from around the world.

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Hoping to slow the flow of questions, Strumpf wrote a new book, "The Grammar Bible," expected in bookstores across the nation by the end of October. The 600-page book is based on queries he has received since he began the hotline.

The goal, Strumpf said, is to explain grammar dilemmas logically. He hopes that readers will learn from the questions his callers had.

Strumpf is especially interested in reaching teachers with his book. He worries that teachers who haven't received proper training will be unable to properly instruct their students.

The lack of English expertise creates a generation of adults who can't communicate and "then desperation takes the place of words," he said.

Strumpf believes the state should spend some of the money earmarked for class-size reduction on hiring well-qualified English teachers instead.

"I would far prefer having a class of 200 taught by an expert than 20 from an amateur," he said. The public should demand skilled English teachers just as they demand skilled physicians, he contends.

Strumpf also rails against advertisers, whom he says often don't bother to check the grammar in their ads. He cites a magazine ad about a Pentax camera--an advertisement trumpeting a photographic "system that shed a winning light"--as an example, explaining that the verb "shed" does not agree with the noun "system."

"How dare they," he said.

While Strumpf is serious about his job, he doesn't behave like a stern teacher intent on scaring his students into learning proper grammar.

Instead he tries to imbue them with a love of the language.

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When Strumpf encourages students to read to improve their grasp of English, he isn't telling them something he doesn't do himself. He has been reading a book a day since he was 9.

In the end, Strumpf has nothing but praise for those interested in improving their grasp of English.

In "Painless Perfect Grammar" he wrote to his readers: "What exquisite people you are for wanting to know so much about literacy and how to be literate."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Sample Problems

Some grammar mysteries unraveled in "Painless Perfect Grammar" by Michael Strumpf and Auriel Douglas:

Q: "I sit besides Jim at school," my son said the other day, and I tried to correct him, but failed.

A: "Beside" and "besides" mean two different things. Your son should have used "beside," which means "at the side of," and reserved "besides" for "in addition to." "I sat beside Jim at school. No one sat besides us because we had the only chairs."

Q: Please straighten me out on contemptible and contemptuous. I am working with a (ditto) boss.

A: I'm sorry to hear your boss is contemptible ("deserving scorn or disdain") and that you are contemptuous ("showing or feeling scorn or disdain") of him.

Q: Can deprecate and depreciate be used interchangeably? Seems to me they mean exactly the same thing.

A: Not at all. Deprecate means "to disapprove," and depreciate means "to lessen in price or value."

Q: "When I buy a new possession, my wife flouts it in front of her friends."

A: Only if she doesn't like it. Flout means to "treat contemptuously." What she probably does is "flaunt," which means "to display ostentatiously."

Q: Do I imply or do I infer that I don't care to spend the weekend away from home?

A: "Imply" means "to suggest or hint." People will infer from your statement that you don't want to go. Infer means "to conclude or gather." But why imply? Why not state your feelings boldly?

Q: "One of my friends is always the latest with the gossip."

A: Your friend is always the last with the latest gossip. Last means "the final item or person in a series;" latest means "the most recent."

Q: What is the difference among epitaph, epaulet and epithet?

A: These three words really do sound similar, don't they? Yet they're spelled differently and have totally different meanings. But it's easy to mix them up and use them incorrectly.

An epitaph is what is written on your headstone. An epithet is a word or phrase describing someone--sometimes nicely as in "Richard the Lion-Hearted," and sometimes not, as in "What's the dingbat up to now?"

An epaulet is a fringed piece of cloth on shoulders of a dress uniform worn by officers in the armed forces.

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FYI

National Grammar Hotline: (805) 378-1494. Queries also may be faxed to (805) 378-1499.

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