Grammar: helping us understand one another

Today I came across a blog post inspired by recent news about some bad grammar awards, and the introduction of a grammar test for young school children. When my comment on Aethelread’s piece started reaching one page, I though my response would be better in a blog post of its own. So here it is…

Although I don’t know if a grammar exam would improve pupils’ use of English (and I haven’t taken the time to find out more about it), I do think there is a good case for students being taught some of the fundamental aspects of grammar for written, standard English. This is principally for clear and consistent communication and so that no child gets left behind or misses opportunities because of an inability to articulate themselves clearly. Not every adult will need to write in perfect English but some people will seek academic qualifications, careers in communications, and jobs where presentation matters.

I emphasise ‘standard English’ because people are typically very good at following the grammatical ‘rules’ for their own dialects. According to Steven Pinker, in the 1960s, some educational psychologists thought that black American children were culturally deprived and lacked true language. In fact, the linguist William Labov showed that African American youths consistently conformed to the grammatical rules of a dialect known as Black English Vernacular. In fact, ‘grammatical’ speech in general (especially when spoken) is far more consistent amongst the working classes compared to the middle classes. The language at learned academic conferences is (or at least was) the most ungrammatical of the lot!

I suspect that this last finding might have much to do with academics each trying to outdo one another by grotesquely manipulating the English language as they grasp at verbal straws to sound more intelligent than their contemporaries. I will always remember reading a friend’s MSc thesis and finding it littered with the word ‘triangulate’. This wasn’t a physics, geology or engineering dissertation; it was about risk management. My friend didn’t know what the word meant, but the marking scheme said he had to triangulate his findings. So he had. I hope this is evidence for why mastering the rules of English is so important for academic discourse: it would be very useful to understand one another.

But back to the main body of my argument. The inconsistent (and incorrect) use of commas, apostrophes, semicolons etc. makes prose look messy and, at best, gives the impression that the writer hasn’t taken the time to proofread their work. I would rather a page of text with the same mistake repeated time and again because at least the writer has made the effort to be consistent (if not to understand the ‘rules’). I personally feel embarrassed that I forgot a comma in the title of my last blog post.

And some maintenance of standard rules of English language can only be a good thing if it is the world’s lingua franca. Yes, spellings will evolve. New words will be coined. I wouldn’t be surprised if an apostrophe came to be used to indicate a plural rather than possession. But if everyone can understand the same basic language in the same way, at least we will be able to communicate with one another.

A friend has a saying that a tradition should only be perpetuated if it serves some purpose. To me, grammar does serve a purpose. And like traditions it also needs to be questioned from time to time to make sure it is still relevant. We can split an infinitive. We can start a sentence with ‘and’. We can use words like ‘hopefully’ in new ways, and be understood perfectly well, even though they aren’t technically used correctly.

Grammar is to speaking and writing what music theory is to artistic licence. We need to understand the rules before we can learn to break them; but without any rules, all we have are squiggles on a page.

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