Why grammar is something we care about
Because we all `do’ grammar all the time, it is something that we often feel quite strongly about — sometimes for good reason and other times quite needlessly
By Michael McCarthy
THE OBSERVER , CAMBRIDGE
Sunday, Apr 02, 2006,Page 9
"Tell them that you have spent seven years writing a grammar of the English language and calm, rational human beings break out in valve-bursting apoplexy."
Tell people over dinner that you have spent seven years writing a book on the geology of England and you might generate polite questions about fossils while waiting for the pudding.
Tell them that you have spent seven years writing a grammar of the English language and calm, rational human beings break out in valve-bursting apoplexy. Opinions flow faster than the beaujolais.
What is it about grammar that generates such heat?
Well, we don’t all do geology, but we all do grammar, all the time. Grammar is something we care about, sometimes for good reasons, other times for downright dotty ones.
Let’s get the dotty ones out of the way. People get upset about split infinitives, prepositions ending sentences, speech habits such as saying "dunno" and "gonna," the greengrocer’s apostrophe ("carrot’s US$1.85 a kilo"), using a singular verb when logic demands a plural ("there’s five boys in the band"), double negatives ("I haven’t done nothing") and so on. Most of these don’t matter as long as they’re used in appropriate contexts.
We know exactly what people mean when they say or write them and often they’re a mark of local dialect, of relaxed, informal styles and, in the case of "there is" followed by a plural, a genuine example of grammar on the move, changing before our eyes.
A check on transcripts of BBC programs will reveal "there is" followed by a plural from the lips of Prime Minister Tony Blair and other senior politicians as well as leading journalists who work for the BBC itself. So, getting upset about this is just plain silly. "There is" plus plural is here to stay; it’s the gray squirrel of grammar.
Double negatives can be heard and read all the time, from all social strata. Very recently, we have heard: "I wouldn’t be surprised if we didn’t get a green budget this time around" and: "I don’t know of anyone who hasn’t been to Rome who doesn’t long to go back there."
English is very good at double negatives; let’s celebrate its versatility (or should that be it’s? After all, it is a possessive).
People also get disproportionately upset about foreign imports, often introduced through television shows such as Friends ("How fabulous is that!" and "I am so not going to do that!"). Grammar changes; we don’t use the same grammar as Chaucer, so, again, let’s not be silly.
But are there things we really should be getting upset about? Probably, though grammarians try not to get upset, preferring, instead, to explain the issues.
What about students coming up to university not knowing what a noun is or the fact they write "could of" instead of "could have?" This simply reveals a lack of basic knowledge of how languages work and of the useful terminology we use to talk about them (and it shows a similar ignorance of the relationship between speech and writing).
But whose fault is this? Maybe it’s the fault of educators, including universities, for jumping on and off educational bandwagons. Or perhaps there is so much other dross on the national curriculum that teaching how language works gets sidelined.
But let me give you an example of something you really should get upset about. One major airline plays a pre-recorded message just before take-off which includes the following: "Use of laptop computers and battery-operated equipment can be used once airborne and the fasten seatbelts sign has been switched off."
This really is simply bad grammar, the "baddest" there is. The repetition of "use" in the subject and "used" as a verb is wrong.
It’s lazy, sloppy communication rather than a violation of some sacred rule. Yet no one at the airline seems to have noticed it, nor do most passengers (we’ve tested them on the wing, so to speak).
This is not speech-in-action, there is no excuse, this message was first written down, then probably approved by a committee, then carefully recorded.
Grammar matters deeply when it’s a question of good and bad communication. What we should be teaching our children and young people is not a set of prescriptions that they won’t remember anyway, but how grammar weaves threads into the tapestry of meaning and the threads can become easily snagged. It’s not a question of following rules; it is a question of understanding what grammar means and how it works.
Michael McCarthy is emeritus professor of applied linguistics at the University of Nottingham.