Jeremy Butterfield

Making words work for you

National Grammar Day 2016: Things 7 need about know to you grammar

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Yippee! (Or groan?) It’s National Grammar Day–again

You mean you didn’t know‽  (I hope that shows up as an interrobang). Well, neither did I, until Twitter alerted me a couple of years ago. Actually, it’s more an American than a British “thang”, started in 2008, by Martha Brockenbrough, founder of The Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar.

What are we supposed to be celebrating?

Before you decide to run into the street dressed as a proper noun or a particularly colourful phrasal verb (like “veg out”?) or construct grandiose, hugely baroque Dickensian periods for your blog, let’s consider exactly what different groups of people mean by the word “grammar”.

The people who get most animated about National Grammar Day usually think “grammar” is going to the dogs.

What do people mean by “grammar”? What do you mean?

There is a lot of misunderstanding (and occasional antagonism) between people who describe language as it is (i.e. “descriptive” people, especially linguists) and members of the general public who dislike a specific feature of language (e.g. so-called split infinitives, ending a sentence with a preposition).

Some of that misunderstanding is, in my view, simply due to a radically different interpretation of the word “grammar”. Linguists follow a definition that runs something like this:

“The whole system and structure of a language or of languages in general, usually taken as consisting of syntax and morphology (including inflections) and sometimes also phonology and semantics.”

Everyone else follows one that, I suggest, goes something like this:

“A set of actual or presumed prescriptive notions about correct use of a language.”

Interpreted in that way, the word becomes little more than a ragbag into which people can stuff any and every use of language which they object to (or should that be “to which they object”?).

grammar
In its technical sense, “grammar” often narrows down to the rules governing how you combine words to make meaningful sentences, the inflections of words (e.g. is the past tense of dive dived or dove?, is the plural of consortium consortia or consortiums?), how verbs behave, what adverbials are, and the like, as illustrated in the graphic above.

You will not find the writers of such eminently readable and practical tomes as the Collins Cobuild English Grammar sneering at someone’s spelling mistake and calling it a “grammatical” error.

The linguistic and technical definition of “grammar”, in fact, excludes most of the things that raise people’s blood pressure.


If you enjoy this blog, and find it useful, there’s an easy way for you to find out when I blog again. Just sign up (in the right-hand column, above the Twitter feed) and you’ll receive an email to tell you. “Simples!”, as the meerkats say. I shall be blogging regularly about issues of English usage, word histories, and writing tips. Enjoy!


 

A tortured grammarian pondering end of sentence prepositions. Well, St Jerome, actually, but he'll do.

A tortured grammarian pondering end of sentence prepositions. Well, St Jerome, actually, but he’ll do.

Things 7 need about know to you grammar

  1. You already know enough grammar [i.e. syntax] to untangle that heading. Congratulations!
  2. Feeling that words ending in -ize are taking over the language, or objecting to “verbing” nouns is not “grammar”. Looked at charitably, it is a stylistic choice; uncharitably, it is paranoid prejudice.
  3. Mispelling [sic] a word is not “grammer” [sic]. It is a spelling mistake, which might — or might not — reflect someone’s generally not good spelling. But which of us doesn’t make a spelling mistake from time to time, or have to look up how a word is spelled.
  4. If someone from Yorkshire says “it were”, or someone from anywhere says “I done”, it is not “bad grammar.” It is “non-standard”, but that’s not the same thing.
  5. New words and phrases are neither good nor bad. You can like them or loathe them, but they have nothing to do with “grammar”.
  6. When someone interprets nonplussed to mean “not fussed or bothered”, that too has nothing to do with “grammar”. It is an example of a word being reinterpreted by some speakers, and thus changing its meaning.
  7. If someone pronounces a word in a way you dislike, you dislike it, that’s all. Again, “grammar” doesn’t come into it.

Prescriptive grammar

This broad and non-technical interpretation of “grammar” as being about what people should and shouldn’t do has  developed over centuries for many reasons, including as a way of marking social and group identity; of separating in-groups from out-groups.

A quotation from 1892 about aitch-dropping shows how rigorous such demarcations could–and can–be:

“A very fine young man, but evidently a nobody, inasmuch as he dropped his aitches and so on.”

from the Australian novelist “Ralph Boldrewood’s” (real name Thomas Alexander Browne) 1892 Nevermore, . ii. 41.

But, as Terry Eagleton says:

“Dropping your aitches in Knightsbridge probably counts as a deviation, whereas it is normative in parts of Lancashire.”

How to Read a Poem, 2007.

 

fine_young_man

This splendid-looking geezer was never invited to the smartest parties because ‘e dropped ‘is aitches something ruthless. Perhaps that explains the slightly affronted look.

It is reflected in the name of a slightly fascistic current book title “I judge you when you use poor grammar“, which also has a Facebook group. In fact, most of the mistakes its members glote [sic]  over are spelling mistakes or choices of the wrong word. This is also true of the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar website, where we are implicitly invited to sneer at someone who wrote “distinguished the fire” instead of “extinguished the fire“, and similar catachreses (now, there’s a splendid word!). Sadly, this kind of  pseudo-grammatical anality is on a par with the prejudices of those Southern Englishers who think that people with, for example, a Yorkshire accent are devoid of grey matter.

A healthful diet is good for you

To illustrate the arbitrariness of some alleged grammar rules, let’s look at just one example of a use which– strangely, at least for a British audience–can give some American copy editors the screaming abdabs. Is it “good grammar” to talk of food, a diet, a lifestyle, as being healthy? Some intransigents and diehards insist that the correct word in those contexts is healthful.

turnips

Health-giving turnips offering themselves invitingly to the discerning palate.

The (false) reasoning behind this seems to be that if you define healthy as “in good health” it must, by definition, apply only to people. A turnip cannot–as far as we know, but then we don’t so far speak “turnip”, though perhaps HRH Prince Charles could interpret for us–enjoy rude good health, and therefore another word is required to denote “conducive to good health”. Enter healthful.

In fact, though healthful is the older word, healthy has been used to mean “conducive to good health” since the 16th century. The ban on it dates only to 1881, and has been passed down as an editorial meme ever since then. (Go here to hear the dulcet-toned Emily Brewster of  Merriam-Webster setting the record straight.)

The prescription totally ignores a productive feature of English: the transferred epithet , which makes it possible, for example, to apply the word sad not merely to people who feel miserable, but also to the events which give them the blues in the first place. Countless other words behave in the same way; to make an exception of healthy is nonsensical and fetishistic. More to the point, and less emotively, it ignores real English. thoreau

The sage of Walden Pond

Back to “grammar”. As regards the second definition I mentioned, it’s worth quoting Thoreau, writing in 1862, when prescriptive grammar held sway:

When I read some of the rules for speaking and writing the English language correctly … I think –
Any fool can make a rule
And every fool will mind it.

When it comes to the specific definition of grammar as our whole language system, we should certainly be celebrating the wonderful ingenuity of human and animal brains in developing it in the first place, and the thousands of ways in which it enriches our experience.

We should also celebrate the fact that all mother-tongue speakers know the grammar of their language, and use it correctly every time they utter, even if they can’t formulate its rules.

brocas-area-brains-speech-center

 

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Author: Jeremy Butterfield

Editor of Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Writer, wordsmith, copywriter, copy-editor and lover of words. I provide editing, web copywriting, and marketing copywriting services in the Central Belt of Scotland, including Stirling, Glasgow, Edinburgh and surrounding areas, as well as throughout the UK. You can find me on Twitter @JezzB2.

8 thoughts on “National Grammar Day 2016: Things 7 need about know to you grammar

  1. Excellent post Jeremy, thank you! I’m guilty of calling everything a ‘grammar mistake’ when I often mean something entirely different, I’m going to try not to do it any more.

    I like your approach too, I’ve been stunned by the way some prescriptivists talk about grammar, as though they own the English language. I’ve seen people fall out in LinkedIn groups and even get ejected for being aggressive in discussions. I’m very much a descriptivist, like you I suspect?

    Thanks again. Best wishes, Sally Sally Mayor Director & Copywriter t 0115 9985564 m 07974 978665

    *Shortlisted for a Rising Star Fastest 40 Award in 2015 by East Midlands Business Link*

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    • Thanks, Sally. I wrote it partly because I think a lot of the conflict between descriptivists/prescriptivists boils down to the ambiguity of the word “grammar” and the two meanings I discussed. And, as you say, some people get very aggressive about language.

      I’m a descriptivist at heart, with a touch of curmudgeon. My analogy is with the weather: you can’t dislike the “weather” in general, it is just a fact, as is language; but you can prefer certain kinds of weather. Mind you, I think that position is too subtle for some people to understand.

      I also change my “tone of voice” somewhat, depending on where I’m writing. This blog is pretty descriptivist, my Fowler perhaps less so.

      Regards, J.

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  2. Excellent stuff, Jeremy. As it happens, I raised the point about healthful and healthy in conversation the other day. I must admit, I managed to reach fifty as an educated part-time English speaker without even becoming aware that some people think ‘healthy food’ is bad English! 🙂

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  3. Thanks, as ever, for your kind comment. I’m intrigued: how on earth did it come up in conversation? (You are obviously not short of interesting interlocutors!). And, it’s a bit late in our communications for me to be asking this, so I blush, but… a) might I ask how much of your “intercourse” is in English, and how much not; and b) if I wanted to consult you on real “Irish” words in English, would you be amenable? Looking forward to next week’s rugby (I think it’s next week) and mightily impressed about how total silence descends on the crowd in Ireland when someone is converting, unlike these loutish Scots, who boo the opposition, ;-).

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  4. Hi Jeremy! Sorry, I have only just come across this. I don’t check these things often enough. We were discussing prescriptivism at a course on proofreading. As for Irish and English, I would say about half and half. I use Irish all the time at work and about some of the time at home. My wife speaks Irish too but if there’s anyone in the company who speaks English, we tend to switch to it out of politeness. As for help with Irish words, I’m more than willing to help. Just contact me at Cassidyslangscam. I think, judging by our performance at the rugby, the silence is for fear of putting them off, though perhaps I’m being a little harsh. The match has just started and the score is still 0-0. Here’s hoping! 🙂

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  5. About some of the time? That proofreading course really made a difference … 😦

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