My contribution to the Great Grammar Debate

That perennial focus of heated debate, grammar, has recently risen to renewed prominence. This is partly the result of the announcement of the inaugural Bad Grammar awards, and partly the result of the imminent introduction of a new grammar test into English primary schools. Taken together, these events have caused a small explosion of comment on matters grammatical, with articles appearing in a number of newspapers including The Times, The Independent and The Guardian (which has published several such articles); the matter has also been raised on the BBC News website.

In general, these articles (and the public discussions appended to them) seem to have generated rather more heat than light: intransigent positions have been restated with absolute conviction, both by those who think ‘poor grammar’ is a cardinal sin and those who think that the whole notion of grammar is an elitist imposition. My own view is different, and I have not seen it entirely replicated anywhere else in current discussions (though this may, of course, reflect no more than the inadequacy of my research). I have therefore decided to publish my own contribution to this Great Grammar Debate.

Let me begin by stating my opinion that there is no such thing as a single correct grammar. Grammar is simply the structure of language, and there are as many correct English grammars as there are varieties of English. A person who proclaims her innocence by exclaiming “I never did nothing!” can only be understood to be violating good grammar if she is first assumed to be speaking a variety of English which disallows the emphatic double negative. Since there are many varieties of English which do allow the emphatic double negative – and since her use of it is evidence that she is speaking such a variety – she cannot justly be accused of violating grammar in the abstract.

It follows that, when it is suggested pupils should be taught ‘correct grammar’, it is not grammar per se that is being discussed. Instead, it is being suggested that pupils should be taught to speak, and especially to write, a particular variety of English: a variety of English which disallows the emphatic double negative in its grammar, and much else besides. This variety of the language is sometimes referred to as Standard English, though it is perhaps better understood as the variety of English most closely associated with middle class people from the South East of England. There are reasons both for and against educating all pupils in the use of this variety of the language.

The great advantage of teaching so-called Standard English to everyone is that it is widely regarded as a proxy for both intelligence and learning: a person confident in the use of Standard English is routinely perceived as more intellectually gifted and better educated than a person who does not use this variety of the language. Some amongst us might be dismayed by that – we might yearn for a state of affairs in which, to paraphrase Martin Luther King, people are judged by the content of their speech, not its form – but it remains true nonetheless. It follows that, if people who are confident in Standard English are at material advantage in gaining employment and access to elite educational establishments, there is good cause to ensure that all pupils are confident in it. (Of course, if familiarity with Standard English is instead being used as a proxy for social class then universality will not achieve the desired effect; the material advantages will be distributed on the basis of some other class signifier instead.)

The great disadvantages of teaching Standard English to everyone are twofold. Firstly, to do so tends towards the suppression of long-standing regional and social identities: the loss of the distinctive forms of English employed in Cornwall and Yorkshire, to cite just two examples, would be a significant impoverishment of the linguistic culture of these islands. Secondly, and perhaps more seriously, the attempt will also tend to hamper innovation in language.

An attempt to fix the grammar of English in a particular configuration is in essence an attempt to fix the language itself at a particular point in time. If any such attempt were to be successful, only one thing would be achieved by it: a reduction in the capacity of English to adapt in response to changing circumstances. If English were to become as stable and static as some prescriptive grammarians wish, it would become like French, which refers to le weekend because it failed to adapt when changing social circumstances made linguistic innovation necessary. Since in reality English will not cease to adapt (it is spoken in too many places to which the writ of the Education Secretary does not extend), the most plausible result is that, over time, the English spoken and written in the real world will diverge from that taught in schools until eventually they bear no resemblance to each other. As instruction in a dead form of the language, English lessons in school will at this point serve no practical purpose at all.

Though language can be both beautiful and elegant, it is at its heart a utilitarian thing: it exists to transmit meaning from the mind of the speaker and writer to the mind of the listener and reader. It follows that there is no secure basis on which to deprecate a particular form of language, except that it makes it impossible, or more difficult, to determine meaning. There are principles of grammar that can be justifiably insisted on for this reason, but there are many more that cannot. No one encountering a sign on a flower stall that reads “Rose’s for sale” actually thinks that an individual named Rose is available for purchase; the phrase ‘to boldly go where no man has gone before’ is no harder to understand than an alternative in which the infinitive is not split; no one reading of the dietary habits of the panda sincerely believes that the creature fires a gun after every meal.

This raises an interesting question: since they make no material difference, why do some people insist with real anger on these petty linguistic rules? The glib answer is to dismiss such people as ‘grammar Nazis’. There is perhaps a small kernel of truth in the notion that those who value order and authority may be attracted towards a system of prescriptive grammar which applies such principles to language, but the use of the term ‘Nazi’ is grossly hyperbolic. Another answer is that grammar is used as a marker of social difference: by highlighting the minor grammatical ‘failings’ of others, a pedant asserts her own membership in an ‘in group’ who understand ‘correct grammar’, whilst also reaffirming that this is an exclusive club to which others do not belong. I find the latter explanation intriguing, since it coincides with my own anecdotal observation that it is those people who are most overtly anxious about their perceived social status who are most likely to defend the ‘rules’ of grammar, even to the tiniest particular.

In conclusion, I wish to return to, and amplify, a remark I made towards the beginning of this piece: that there is no such thing as a single correct grammar. Speaking to the BBC, the linguist David Crystal asserted that the new primary school test will be marked in such a way that the use of the Oxford, or serial, comma will be identified as an error. Since the serial comma is insisted on in Oxford University Press style (hence the reason it is known as the Oxford comma), it follows that the Department for Education has ruled that, as Crystal puts it, ‘the whole output of Oxford University Press is wrong’. This output of course includes the Oxford English Dictionary, which is regarded as possessing such great authority that it is frequently described as the ‘bible’ of British English. Thus is demonstrated the great difficulty of insisting that there is such a thing as one ‘correct’ way of using language: too often, as with the serial comma, there are a number of alternatives, each with its adherents and detractors. In such circumstances, any attempt to define a single set of rules that can be agreed upon by everyone is doomed to fail.

I may well have been unsuccessful, but it has been my intention here to produce a piece of writing which adheres closely to the grammar of Standard English. My purpose in so doing has been to demonstrate that writing of this kind has a very particular character: one that is dry, formal, and not entirely pleasant to read. It has been my hope that it will therefore have functioned as an implied criticism of the insistence that this variety of English is always correct. I hope my readers will have found they prefer the grammar of my typical style, which allows split infinitives, and sentences that either begin with a conjunction or end with a preposition, amongst sundry other ‘errors’. I hope, having ploughed through this exercise in somewhat turgid prose, my readers will agree that such ‘errors’ ought not be designated as such, since they serve to produce English which is pleasanter to read, and no harder to understand.

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4 Responses to My contribution to the Great Grammar Debate

  1. I still enjoyed it. I don’t mind a change of register from time to time! But I do feel that teaching children a variety of registers, and that literature seldom sticks to the rules, is probably more important than teaching everyone how to pass civil service exams.

  2. archiewahwah says:

    You make some great points, but I do think it’s worthwhile teaching children grammar.
    The assumption is made here that teachers think that there is ‘one correct grammar’. We don’t need to make that assumption. Instead, we can say, ‘there are several “good grammars,”‘ ones that help to convey good meaning and all the subtle nuances of language, without which meaning can be confused. There are also bad grammars. We know that ‘rose’s for sale’ really means ‘roses for sale,’ but our minds have been distracted momentarily by the error, which has detracted from the original direct meaning.
    Teaching kids one good form of grammar will assist them to communicate clearly, which also assists to help them think about what they are communicating on a deeper level. This can’t be a bad thing.
    Beyond that, it will help them no end in learning another language. Britain is poor for language education. In many other countries grammar is taught as standard, and I have it on good authority that it comes in handy when approaching the study of other languages.

  3. Pingback: Grammar: helping us understand one another | The Unforgiving Minute

  4. Another interesting perspective. I started writing a reply and it turned into a blog post of its own:

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