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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Indicators please. We’re British.

One of the perceptions foreigners have of the British is that we’re all so very polite.

Manners are drilled into us from an early age. I remember the school canteen with a sign that said “Pleases and thank yous are free”. Now we’re older, the signs are no longer there but the habits have remained: in her book ‘Watching the English’, the anthropologist Kate Fox calculated that the average drinks order in an English pub or bar consisted of four ‘pleases’ and three ‘thanks yous’ (or similar).

I say “or similar” because we might say “thanks”, “cheers” or “ta” instead, although these tend to be slightly more informal, and there’s definitely a gender/age/regional thing with cheers and ta as well.

In various respects, our manners filter down into everyday aspects of our lives, whether it’s when we’re forming one of our famous queues (don’t you dare think about jumping to the front!), buying a round of drinks or issuing an apology when someone walks into us (you read that correctly).

Our manners also extend to the road, and it’s here that I really notice the difference between us and other cultures. The British tend not to notice all the above signs of good manners (you only notice them when someone breaches etiquette) and therefore we’re often surprised to hear that foreigners have such a high opinion of us. But having visited various countries, the difference between us and them is most acute from inside a car.

One of the most obvious signs of our good manners on the road is our willingness to let people in front of us when they’re changing lanes or entering from a side street. The importance of this cannot be underestimated, especially when approaching motorway junctions and finding yourself in the wrong lane with a quarter of a mile to cross a lane of traffic. In similar situations in America people seem to ignore your indicator and it’s every man or woman for him or herself.

This invitation to enter is usually indicated with a flash or two of the headlights (which is a slight, albeit accepted, breach of The Highway Code), and is usually reciprocated with a brief flash of the hazards, some flicking of the indicators, or, most frequently, a hand raised in thanks. You might also raise your hand if you’ve done something wrong to signal an apology.

And this is the second sign of British manners on the road: we’ll still say thank you. A few years ago I was in the south of France and we pulled over to let another driver through who was coming towards us. We were incredulous when we didn’t even get a single nod of appreciation.

That said, we can take this all a bit too far. Usually, a driver will let someone through. The other driver will drive past, raising their hand in thanks. The first driver will often raise their hand as if to say “you’re welcome” (or maybe “thanks for saying thanks”). However, there was a brief spell last summer when the second driver would then raise their hand in thanks for a second time: “thank you for saying you’re welcome”. I was never certain whether this was endearing or daft, but it certainly brought a smile to my face and made me laugh out loud on more than one occasion.

Despite all this, there is one aspect of English behaviour on the roads that we all could do with being reminded about: using our indicators. It should be self-evident that indicators are there for everyone’s safety. If used properly, they could make everyone’s journeys a little more efficient (both time-wise and fuel-wise) too. For instance, if people used their indicators properly on roundabouts, drivers could better anticipate when they could enter the flow of traffic. At a junction, even with pedestrian crossings and traffic lights, indicating your intent can allow pedestrians to cross sooner, or cars to turn earlier.

But we generally don’t seem to care about our safety and that of other road users when we’re in a car, so I’d like to make a suggestion: using your indicators is a sign of good manners. It’s polite to let other road users know what you want to do, so please can we try and do a bit better? Like saying please, it costs nothing and shows respect for the people around us. Thank you.


Have you forgotten when you should use your indicators? Relax, The Highway Code is online.



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Darwin vs. technology: are science and engineering altering the evolution of the human race?

Classic evolutionary theory holds that genes are passed from one generation to the next. Some genes confer certain advantages on the host, and holders of these genes go on to flourish. Other genes may be detrimental, and holders of these genes may not survive; or at least not long enough to reproduce and carry these genes on to the next generation.

Intriguingly, there are some genes that seem to offer advantages in later years, long passed reproductive age and the assumed point of biological selection. The logic behind this appears to be that in some species (including our own), genes that select for healthier, older members can support the younger generation. Obviously, family groups who share this support are more likely to flourish, so there is a greater likelihood of these genes being passed on.

Survival therefore requires maintaining the existence of advantageous genes. But it also requires an element of genetic adaptation to provide a competitive edge and response to changes in the environment. From time to time, genes mutate and provide hitherto unrealised advantages to the carriers and their offspring. Over the course of a number of generations, these new genes can come to be abundant in the population and in extreme cases lead to speciation: the evolution of a whole new species.

Organisms like bacteria are notorious for introducing mutations frequently during reproduction. Bacteria survive by continually mutating and evolving to meet the demands of an ever-changing environment. Some of the future generations will not be viable, but others will be. And as long as the species survives, it doesn’t matter if a large number die. This ability to mutate, and for viable generations to rapidly develop, is the main cause of drug-resistance in bacteria.

It’s slightly unsettling to think of human survival in the same way as bacterial survival, but that’s essentially what our evolutionary instinct is designed to do: although individually we may be attracted to certain qualities in a mate that we wish for our children, ultimately we have been biologically programmed to produce offspring with the genes to help the species live on. As genetic fidelity is important for the survival of humans, the introduction of new, advantageous genetic mutations is rarer; and given the length of time it takes for humans to reproduce, it takes many, many years (possibly thousands) for these genetic advantages to percolate through the human race. Humans are slow to adapt genetically.

However, part of me wonders if mankind has now managed to transcend genetics. I’m not talking test tube babies, I’m referring to the appliance of science, engineering and technology more broadly, and how this affects us for the better and worse.

There are countless examples of mankind’s innovation and ingenuity solving some of the worst and most troubling problems we’ve faced in the past: we’ve eliminated small pox; we’ve developed varieties of wheat that have prevented whole nations from starving to death; we live longer; we can treat more diseases. Even the relatively small and unassuming technologies that we (in the West) all take for granted have been small building blocks to where we are today: paper, pens, light bulbs, electricity, batteries, mobile phones…

But scientific and technological advances have occasionally had numerous, and often large, unforeseen negative consequences. For instance, the discovery of oil has undoubtedly fuelled human progress over the last two centuries, but has brought with it air pollutants, cancer, damage to the climate, which have all had incalculable costs on human life. CFCs were a boon for refrigeration, helping us keep food for longer without succumbing to food poisoning, but did huge damage to the ozone layer. Lead-based additives in petrol got into the atmosphere and retarded human development. As we live longer and grow richer, the demand for food has led to deforestation. Nuclear power offers clean and long-lasting electricity generation but when it goes wrong, like with Chernobyl, it can be deadly and have far- and long-reaching consequences that we don’t fully understand.

And even those small things I said we take for granted could have an impact: what are the effects of the chemicals leaching from old pens, batteries and phones into local habitats and food chains?

Human ingenuity, and the use of science, engineering and technology, will help to solve some of the most pressing issues we face on this planet. GM crops and nanomaterials are two growing industries that will help shape this future, but these are still so relatively new that we do not fully understand their longer-term impacts. Earth is a complex ecosystem, which we do not fully understand either. And it seems dangerous to mix two unknowns without some appreciation and respect of problems that may result. We need look no further than the financial crisis: we don’t really understand how the markets work; nobody seemed to understand how financial derivatives worked. It was the perfect storm.

This isn’t an argument against technological innovation (when India was starving in the mid-twentieth century, could the people have afforded to wait for five years of safety trials?), but it is an argument for prudence, minimising our impact on the environment, and appreciating that some of those annoying regulations have a purpose.

I’m a huge proponent of using science and technology to improve our lives and the world around us. I think there’s a lot to be said for trying new things and making evolutionary jumps in these fields, learning from our mistakes and adapting. But some mistakes are more costly than others. Do we just go for it and invent new tools, chemicals and materials, fixing mistakes afterwards, hopefully providing a net-benefit to mankind but sacrificing human lives in the meantime while we fix our errors? Or do we act more wisely, actively trying to minimise damage at both ends of the spectrum?

Ultimately, technology is evolving at a far faster pace than humankind ever can. Should we live in a world shaped by the Darwinian character of human innovation, or do we want to live in a world where we try and treat every human life as precious? I honestly don’t know.

Posted in Personal favourites, Pet hypotheses, Philosophical musings, Science | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Problem and the Power of Now

I was speaking to an elderly gentleman at the bus stop this morning and the conversation troubled me: he had a problem with Now. He felt sorry for children nowadays, what with all the unemployment now. His son had been murdered four years ago but he had come to terms with it, because life’s like that now.

We seem so focussed on the present, that sometimes we forget to look to the past, both for inspiration and for hope. There has been unemployment before, there have been recessions before, and in those times, as in this, people will struggle to find work. The economy is cyclic and there will be better days ahead.

Despite what you might think, the murder rate in England and Wales is declining, back to levels we haven’t seen since the early 1980s. But, when things affect us personally, or when we’re exposed to negative stories on a frequent basis in the news, we are more likely to overestimate their occurence. We can’t help it, but we seem predisposed to finding the bad in everything, or stoically accepting the fact there’s nothing we can do about it so there’s no point in getting angry. Five hundred and forty nine murders is 549 too many, but miniscule compared to the millions of people who inhabit this small rock.

In his book ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’, Daniel Kahneman describes the following study conducted on German students. As part of a questionnaire, they were asked the following two questions:

How happy are you these days?
How many dates did you have in the last month?

There was hardly any correlation between the two sets of answers. However, a second group of participants were asked the the questions in reverse order. This time, the correlation was extraordinarily strong. Those who’d had more dates were happier. Their judgement, their thoughts and feelings, had been affected by Now.

Another example? We had a cold snap late November/early December last year. Suddenly, we all (well, me at least) thought that the signs were good for a white Christmas. Two days of bitterly cold winds, maybe a flurry of snowflakes, and we were out to the bookies placing our bets. If you’d asked me a week later, when the weather had turned wetter and milder, I’d have given you a completely different response.

So, the singularity of Now can mislead us; but it can also offer opportunity. How many chances do we miss to do a good deed, seize the moment, set an example? What would happen to that flash of inspiration if nurtured then and there? How many chances do we miss when serendipity strikes? If one door closes, do we stare at it, or walk through the doorway that opened up in its place?

One of my favourite poems is ‘If’ by Rudyard Kipling. In the last verse he writes:

If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the world and everything that’s in it
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!

So many times, these lines have inspired me to make the most of those wasted moments I’ll never get back: like those I spend waiting for the kettle to boil or the washing machine to do its final spin. Not only do I get to bed a few minutes earlier, I also feel a smidgen of pride for completing even the smallest of tasks.

But making the most of Now can be far more rewarding than that. Now is a precious thing. We will never be able to go back and do the things we didn’t, nor undo the things we did. We will look back on Now with fondness and regret, analyse our mistakes and probably repeat them again. But Now is positive. Now is but a window into time and space; our perceptions of it shaped by recent experiences but its very existence the product of all the events that have come before it. Now always offers a chance for change, an opportunity for hope, an invitation to start something new.

And it’s in that spirit that I started this blog. It may be imperfect, perhaps a little too prosaic or whimsical, but I’ve put it off for far too long. Doubt and apathy got in the way. I don’t promise regular updates – obligations and deadlines can spoil a hobby – but I want to use my writing as a way of answering the questions I haven’t solved yet, and to take the time to articulate my thoughts. I may never answer all the questions I have, but if exploring the issues and topics makes things just a tiny bit clearer, and if I learn things along the way, then it will all be worth it.

But that’s it for now.

Posted in Personal favourites, Philosophical musings | Tagged , , | 1 Comment