Tuesday, 20 November 2007

Grammar Rant

Stuck in a Book’s blog today was about grammar. He’s a fan of accuracy and so one of his friends has started making references to the Grammar Police... Hmmm… and he seemed such a nice boy.

Grammar is one of those subjects which, as an English graduate, daily practitioner for many years of a profession involving the nitty gritty of language (speech and language therapy) and, now, as a writer, intrigues, fascinates and irritates me.

It intrigues me because of what you can do with it. The wonder of English with its delicate nuances – the subtle difference between ‘I would have been thinking’ and ‘I would have thought’ or ‘their misreading’ and ‘they’re misreading’.

It fascinates me because, as a working language, it has been given such a hard time by what you might call professional language people. All those eighteenth century grammarians, for instance, who thought English was only acceptable as a serious language insofar as it accorded with the rules of Latin. Well - hello Messers Grammarian! - English is a long way from Latin. It is an uninflected language for a start – we do not add bits to the root verb, as Latin does (amo, amas, amat), we use pronouns and auxilliaries (I love, you love, he, she or it loves – ok, we add ‘s’ to the third person singular. It’s an anachronism, live with it.).

And it irritates me. Because people mistake the point of grammar. Let me say this loud and clear. Grammar is not the same as good style. It is not to make things sound nice, to roll off the tongue sweetly. Grammar is there to make things clear and unambiguous.
Take all that huffing and puffing about prepositions at the end of sentences. It’s something you’re not supposed to go along with. But I can do no better than quote Winston Churchill – ‘that is the kind of pedantry up with which I will not put.’ Am I supposed to say ‘It’s something along with which you are not supposed to go?’ For goodness sake!

The fact is, a lot of what people claim is good grammar is actually pedantry. For instance, the ‘rule’ which says you shouldn’t separate the two bits of an intransitive verb – ie don’t say ‘to boldly go’ but say ‘to go boldly’. Why aren’t you supposed to separate these two? Because it leads to a lack of clarity? No, because some twerp of an eighteenth century Latinate grammarian had a bee in his bonnet about the way it sounded and decided that it couldn’t be allowed.

Grammar should be there to make our communications unambiguous. To ensure that we don’t stand about saying things like ‘did you mean she did it or you did it?’ As it stands at the moment, grammar seems to be ignored as a concept by one section of the population (the half which doesn’t know what an apostrophe is supposed to be for) and endlessly banged on about by another (the section which insists on ‘It is I’ when they are on the phone instead of ‘it’s me’.
Why is ‘it is I’ better according to them? Because it’s the right case. ‘I’ is the subject of the sentence (which could be written ‘It is I who am speaking’) not the object. Though I think an equally persuasive argument could be made out that you are the object of the sentence – you could re-write it ‘It is me that you are speaking to’…

But, apply the one and only rule of grammar – does it make things clearer? No. You just irritate the hell out of people like me if you insist on saying it. Because, basically, English does not need cases any more. Once upon a time, when we were turning from Anglo Saxon via Middle English into Modern English, we may have done. Anglo Saxon was an inflected language in which there was a considerable difference between ‘me’ and ‘I’ – only by using the right one could the person listening to you tell whether you were the doer of the action or the person unto whom (whom? – another case fright) the action was being done. But you don’t need that distinction in modern English – it’s obvious from the verbal context – word order and the use of verbs do not allow for I/me ambiguity. Or we/us. I mean, take the phrase ‘what are you saying to we?’ which would be perfectly acceptable in some world versions of English. We don’t like it because British English doesn’t phrase it that way – we use ‘us’ in that context, not ‘we’. But does it make a difference to the meaning? No.

My Mum has a habit of grinding her teeth if any of us say (as my children’s generation constantly does, and I find myself dropping into) ‘me and so and so went…’ instead of ‘so and so and I went..’. She just hates it. Why? Because, as the rule says, you wouldn’t say ‘me went’ so you don’t say ‘me and so and so went’ and you don’t put yourself first because that’s discourteous. Hence you end up with ‘so and so and I’ And it sounds nicer, even I have to admit that. But then that’s probably because when I used that version, I didn’t get disapproved of – it has pleasanter associations.

So, are we supposed to ignore apostrophe misuse?
I say it loud and proud. Yes! Unless it makes things unclear. But when you see ‘potato’s’ in the greengrocer’s you’d be a very unreasonable person if you thought ‘potato’s what?’

The point is, what something looks like in writing is almost irrelevant to how it sounds when we speak and, believe it or not, O literate nation, grammar arises from the spoken word. People can misspell or misuse ‘their’ ‘there’ and ‘they’re’ in written communications because there will be no misunderstanding! Contextually, you will know what the person means. You may be irritated. You may think the person writing is an illiterate cretin. But you will not be confused. Why? Because languages only allow homophones (words which sound the same but mean different things) to remain if they don’t cause confusion. The minute confusion arises, one of them will begin to be pronounced differently or dropped altogether. Written communication is different. We can see they’re different and so we don’t need to use context to work out which one of them the writer means. Until they use the grammatically wrong one.

So, do I have no grammar pride? No, not really. English is an evolving language. Soon, apostrophes will become irrelevant; infer will mean the same as imply and nobody will say ‘secretary’ in any other way than ‘sekitry’.

New words will emerge, new grammatical constructions to express new concepts, new relationships, new ways of thinking. Because otherwise, brethren, we would all still be speaking like G. Chaucer Esq. and I don’t know the last time you checked out the Canterbury Tales in the original but we SO don’t speak like that any more, innit?

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