Friday, 17 May 2013

10 Myths About Grammar

Grammar. Everybody's favourite most-hated topic. It's back in the news this week with yet more proposed changes to the education system. Everybody's pitching in to have their say on how (and even if) it should be taught to children and at what age and why it's an outdated and irrelevant concept and why it's still one of the most important parts of anyone's education and so on and so on.

Matt Haig has written an interesting blog post on the subject, 30 Things to Tell a Grammar Snob. I enjoyed this, smiled at the funny bits, and agreed with a lot of it. But I started thinking that, just as it isn't healthy to adhere slavishly to the 'rules' just because somebody tells you to, it isn't healthy to ignore them purely because you can. In other words, it's no better to be a grammar slob than a grammar snob.

I wondered if it was a question of perspective, so I asked:

I didn't get a reply, but I was interested to see that Nick Harkaway joined the debate, summing up his defence of grammar using much the same terminology as I did. So, encouraged that I'm not alone here, I'd like to attempt to bust a few myths about grammar:

1. Grammar is a straitjacket to squeeze language into.
Grammar should never be thought of as something that works from the outside, constricting language and stopping it growing. It's not like a crab's shell, something that has to be abandoned if you want to take your writing onto bigger and better things. It's better to think of it as working from within, like a skeleton, with language as the flesh. Skeletons change over time - mine's different to when I was a baby, a child, or an adolescent. Bone responds to usage, becoming harder and more resilient when it's heavily loaded, or fading away where it's not used so often. It can be broken and heal into new configurations, but it always does the same job.

2. Following rules means everything ends up the same.
Saint Paul's Cathedral, the works of Antoni Gaudi, and the New York Guggenheim couldn't be more different, but they all follow the same rules of physics. Their designers and architects have used their understanding of the way materials behave, how stress is transferred, how gravity affects steel beams or blocks of stone, in order to come up with wildly different solutions to the question of how to build a structure. The B of the Bang, a £1.4m sculpture commissioned to mark the 2002 Commonwealth Games, didn't follow the rules. It looked great, but it was fundamentally flawed. It couldn't support its own weight, and was dismantled a few months after it was unveiled as its immense metal spikes started falling off. Sometimes understanding the rules can save you a lot of bother.

3. Grammar is boring.
This, I'm sorry to say, says more about the person making the claim than about the topic. If you're not interested in the use and history of words and language, maybe a career in writing isn't a sensible aspiration for you. Who genuinely doesn't enjoy learning, or discovering something new? I did the BBC's grammar test a couple of days ago and got 9 out of 10. The question I didn't know was about gerunds. I'd heard of them but didn't know what they were. I now know. I feel good about this, and hope they crop up in a pub quiz sometime soon.

4. The internet and texting is changing language anyway, so there's no point getting bogged down with old-fashioned stuff.
While this is true, who wants what they write to date as quickly as a tweet (or a blog post!)? Fashions in social media come and go, and there's an acceptance that whatever's there is disposable and fleeting. There's nothing wrong with this, but I can't imagine anybody being won over by a novel with writing like this:
Brian LOL'd. "That's the funniest joke ever," he said, ROFLing.
"I know," Sandra replied, "When I heard it I was all like :-D"
Jane looked unimpressed. "Whatever." #sarcasm

5. As long as your readers get the gist of what you're saying, that's close enough.
Context is key here. Getting the wrong word from the their/there/they're triumvirate in a Facebook status is pretty harmless. Being ambiguous in the operating manual for a kidney dialysis machine or safety guidelines for a nuclear power station, not so much. Sometimes a precision of language is absolutely essential.

6. Grammar is a way for the intellectual elite to lord it over the rest of us.
It may be used that way, but it's the absolute opposite of the point of grammar. Anybody who's felt themselves sinking into a whirlpool of notwithstandings, hereforths, and aforementioneds in a legal document knows that sense of language being used as a barrier. A knowledge of grammar gives you the tools to dismantle those barriers, and extract the meaning (or lack of meaning) from this kind of document. If everybody understood the subtleties of language use, it would be a level playing field. If the majority of the population shys away from grammar, the elite have free rein to trick and befuddle us with their wily ways with words.

7. Shakespeare lived and wrote in a time before there was any notion of 'fixed' grammar and he's done alright for himself.
Shakespeare also lived in a time when people emptied their bedpans in the street, the average life expectancy was around 40 years and women weren't allowed to vote or own property. Let's not get too misty-eyed about the good old days. Also, does your typical person on the street understand (or even get the gist of) everything Shakespeare wrote? I bet you a pound they don't.

8. "Alright" is not a word.
Yes it is. See, grammar can evolve.

9. Grammar is a barrier to self-expression.
Often, because dialects appear to bend or break the rules of grammar, it's said that grammar is an attack on regional variation in the way people talk, a way of forcing everybody to speak and write like they were on the BBC in the 1950s. But I don't think this attitude withstands much scrutiny. There aren't many sayings that actually fly in the face of generally accepted grammar. It's mainly a case of different words being substituted, or the order of words played around with. Embellishments or abbreviations, not whole-hearted rejection of the underlying principles.

As an aside, I really don't like the use of "while" meaning "until", in the sense of "I won't be able to repay you while next Wednesday", and I'd be happy if I never heard it again. But, though I wouldn't want to ban anybody from using the word that way, are they really expressing anything different to saying the same thing with the word "until" in its place? I don't think so, but I'd be interested to hear an argument to the contrary.

10. Correcting somebody's grammar means belittling their efforts and humiliating them.
This is the biggie, and I suspect it's the main driving force behind Matt Haig's post. It is, of course, utter hogwash. Firstly, let's get away from the word "correcting". It's arrogant for anybody to think they are correct when it comes to grammar. And it's very counter-productive to try to make somebody learn something by telling them how wrong they are. If I'm critiquing somebody's work and there's a grammatical issue, I'll try to phrase my response along the lines of, "There's a couple of ways of interpreting that; which of them do you mean?" or similar, not "Oh, you used a split infinitive, you utter cretin!". If you can't help somebody with their writing without shattering their confidence and bigging yourself up, that's not grammar's fault, that's you, being an arse. Stop it.


Karen Jones said...

I'll just applaud, if that's okay.

Chloe said...

What a great post, Dan! I love grammar and I also know that I make grammatical mistakes. One of the most-commented articles on my blog was about whether grammar is important or not.

Making fun or someone or insulting them for misused grammar is not cool. Sticking up for correct grammar is. I also got 9 out of 10 on the quiz (and got the gerund question right only by guessing). And I also think alright is a word, as is anymore, though I know some writers who can't stand either.

Dan Purdue said...

Karen - That's totally fine. Thank you.

Chloe - Thanks! Alright is one of those words that's evolved away from its roots. All right and alright have come to mean different things. I tend to only use in informally, though, or in speech.

Thanks also for retweeting the link, both of you.

Dan Purdue said...

* use it informally

(Must proof-read my comments better)

Jen Harvey said...

What I have found confusing about the whole hullaballoo is the way some have interpreted a respect for grammar as an inability to enjoy and play with language.

As if only anarchic grammarians are capable of subverting language and pushing forward its evolution.

Grammar is an essential foundation. Fluid and evolving yes, but as the rules change and develop they remain just that, rules that guide us.

And we all help to develop them, simply through usage.

Interesting article and nice contribution to the debate.

PS - the whole issue of testing 11 year olds and how this testing approach can impact on a child's love of language seems to have become mixed up in this debate, but I think it's a separate issue.

And seeing as it's Friday night, I'm not going to delve into it just now. Monday's the time for that :)