28 September 2009

In Defence of Grammar Fascism

I thought that after reading this post by Yousuf, I should put my tupp'orth in. Now, it seems that people have been haranguing him about his use of grammar and the occasional typo - as an inattentive typist myself, let me tell you that typos are a fact of life, and whining about them serves only to set you up for one hell of a fall - but I rather think there's a wider issue of Yousuf's self-deprecation that needs clearing up. So let me begin this post by looking at his opening paragraph:

One of the oddities of being a blogger is that people occasionally harbour under the illusion that you are a good writer. I'm not particularly, I'd like to think it's what I say rather than the way I say which sustains this blog.

His second part is broadly right: it's what he says that sustains his blog. But that's true of all blogs. You could get every comma, every apostrophe, every mark, every grammatical nuance correct but if your content is horse shite then no one will read it. Yousuf, by contrast, engages his audience, gets them thinking, gets them challenging him and gets them writing something of their own. That is exactly what good writing is supposed to do, so Yousuf meets the essential criteria for a good writer. Hell, this post is proof of that.

Similarly, I'm not sure why people feel the need to go to the trouble of dragging him over the coals for the occasional typo. That's just petty, and if it helps him, I could point him in the direction of an army of linguists, who would testify not only that it's OK to split infinitives, but that you're actually supposed to. This is the nature of the beast that is language: everyone has an opinion and there's so much variation within languages and dialects that it's hard to nail the 'right' form.

Nevertheless, I'd suggest cutting grammar fascists some slack. I can think of a few reasons why they have a part to play.

1. A good grammar makes us more easily understood. This is especially true in a language like English, that has a relatively rigid grammar but an absolutely crap morphology. English nouns do have, at the very least, a Nominative, Accusative and a Genitive case, but only two phonetic forms and an orthographical practice that relies heavily on the writer knowing how to use the apostrophe. Similarly, most other languages have all sorts of ways of marking their verbs according to person and number; while some even factor in gender and the relative social status of the subject. English has only two verb endings in the regular present tense, and only one in the preterite. Other languages have a variety of ways of marking tense, mood and aspect in the grammar. English doesn't, so we start at a disadvantage to many other languages. Take, for example, Russian: semantically (though not necessarily stylistically), Mal'chik ljubit devochku, Devochku ljubit mal'chik, Mal'chik devochku ljubit and Ljubit mal'chik devochku all mean the same thing: the boy loves the girl. In English, the girl loves the boy means the reverse (Devochka ljubit mal'chika, or any similar ordering of those words, in Russian), while the boy the girl loves and the girl the boy loves aren't even complete sentences and any other combination is basically a meaningless jumble.

That's a major point in English: many of the grammatical rules are rigid and stylistic conventions have to be applied in different ways (more often than not with stresses on particular words in speech and the use of italics and underlining in writing). However, the orthography is very confusing: the same combination of letters can have all sorts of different pronunciations, while several words can be pronounced in exactly the same way, but have different spellings depending on their meaning. In short, English has a very rigid external structure, but on the inside, it's a complete mess. Better, then, to hold on to the clear markers that grammar offers. A good grammar isn't essential to making yourself understood, and it's certainly not worth beating yourself (or others) up about, but it does make things easier.

2. There's a kind of romantic, quixotic thing going on. For some, good grammar is like a relic of a more civilised past, when we were nicer to each other and knew how to use apostrophes. For others, there are particular bugbears, or things that they love to see done right and hate to see mangled.

Take, for example, my newly enlarged hostility to Iain Gray. It's based on this phrase: "If I was First Minister..." To me, if I was just sounds wrong. That's because English has a subjunctive mood, and was isn't in it. If I were just sounds better. If I was just sounds like Gray needs to fire his speech writer. It's not that I'm trying to put Iain Gray down for this - it just genuinely winds me up. We all have our niggles.

There's another point that Yousuf raised:

From my English teachers until today I can't help but feel that people use grammar like they use classical music or the theatre, not for any passion for the subject but as a way of showing some sort of superiority over others.

There may be some who do feel that way. I, for one, see myself in a different category. I don't listen to classical music much and I can't remember the last time I set foot in a theatre, but it's nice to know they're there. I can listen to classical music if I want to, I can go and see a play if I want to. Good grammar needn't be for snobs and other elitists: it can be for everyone and anyone.

And so, I try to use it. But that's my particular style of reading and writing. You know who my all-time favourite blogger is? Andy Sharp, a.k.a. Justified Spinner. It's the way he has of putting things, the turn of phrase, the writing style, that I just love. One way or another, he'll rev his readers up, and use some downright brilliant way of describing things and people that just seem to work. But that's my taste. I'm a sucker for stylistics. Hell, when I'm posting something here, or on the Roundup, I'll emit audible cheers when I nail a phrase or a sentence. When something's written just right, it's magical. The fact is, I love words and I love writing: that why this blog began as that act of boredom back in 2005. It wasn't just that I'm into politics, or that I'm an opinionated little gobshite, it's that I get something out of putting words together, and seeing them take shape on the screen or on paper. That's why I love producing 800 words for these chaps. A shame that I can't understand the translation word for word, or the other articles. So you see, even I have my hidden romantic streak, and it comes out in my appreciation for good language.

3. Knowing the ins and outs of our own language helps us understand others. There's something bizarre in the way we teach English: you have to learn another language to really understand it, as you suddenly realise that actually, yes, we do have a case system and we do have a subjunctive.

Let's take the former: anyone learning German will be absolutely freaked out by the difference between 'der', 'den' and 'dem'. They're all the masculine definite article, but they are the forms in the Nominative, Accusative and Dative cases. Now, the Dative works differently - I'm not even sure if English even has a Dative - but to explain Nominative and Accusative, you have to get into all sorts of theory about the subject and object. The reality is that English has the same and we don't even realise it. It's in the pronouns: it's the difference between 'I' and 'me', or 'we' and 'us'. But we don't understand the language we were brought up with, and the mechanics behind it, well enough to spot that connection.

Again, let's look at the subjunctive: anyone with experience of any of the main European languages at Higher or A-Level will probably have come across it. And when I looked at it in French, German and Spanish, my teachers had to produce convoluted style guides to explain how and when to use it. Now, the precise usage will vary from language to language, but understanding that it exists in English will prevent students of another language from a nasty 'WTF?' moment later on. They'll know how to recognise one. They may even ask about it. But more importantly, they'll already have the understanding of what it is and why it's used that foreign language teachers have to instil in them. And with it not being popular to learn a language at all, much less to a decent level, anything that makes learning a language easier is a good thing.

What I'm trying to say it this: if the best you can do is rub someone's nose in a grammatical mistake then, frankly, you need to get a life. But good grammar is still a good thing, it makes communication easier, it makes learning other languages easier, and it's something that people can take pride in. So cut the grammar fascists some slack.


subrosa said...

Well said Will. My hobby horse is spelling, not just typos but spelling which affects the whole meaning of a phrase or sentence.

Saying that I would never embarrass anyone but publicly pointing out an error - unless I knew they wanted help.

These days there's something worse than bad grammar and it's bad pronounciation. Just tonight on BBC News controversy was said repeatedly with the emphasis on the prefix. Ouch!

Now I'm going to visit Yousuf and give him some support - he deserves it.


Bill said...

A very good and interesting article. Unfortunately I know a lot more about the technical aspects of grammar used in French and Arabic than I do in English as in the last I acquired the knowledge I do have, such as it is, by a sort of osmosis rather than formal learning or at least only to a relatively modest level. I've often observed that many non-native English speakers can use our language only to a very limited extent, even if they use it regularly for professional or business purposes (as so many must) and speak it quite well, but relatively few can go beyond that to use it correctly in idiomatic terms. English seems simple because it is so ubiqutious, but in my view is one of the most fiendishly complex languages around.

On the other hand the complexities of French regularly challenge even
well-educated native speakers, particuarly a notoriously difficult oral writing test which is something of a national obsession there. Arabic is a very complex, but also very logical and regular language - but of course I as a non-native speaker probably know the rules which underlie the langauge a lot better than even well-educated native-speakers, because they do not need to learn the rules in the same formal way as they grow up knowing them, rather as I like to think I have with English. My hand-writing is certainly a whole lot better in Arabic than in English!

Bucket of Tongues said...

It's not being facist, it's being right!

But of course some people write with more style than others. Hooray for them, I say. Yousuf seems to be labouring under an inferiority complex if he thinks grammar is about elitism. I don't feel insecure when I hear Slash playing amazing guitar, I admire his skill. Same goes with writing.

Stuart Winton said...

So the master speaks!

But do the comments suggest that some people actually understand the more arcane elements of the article?!?

Well I certainly don't, but on the other hand in general terms I agree with the thrust of the post.

I think!

red mist said...

Did the SNP not say
"We will reduce class sizes in Primary 1, 2 and 3 to 18 pupils or less" , Will.

'Fewer', surely.

Poor grammar, worse performance. ;-D

Brian said...

As far as learning another language is concerned, can I put in a word for Esperanto?

I suggest not only because it has become a living language, but because it has great propaedeutic values as well. Esperanto helps language learning!

You can check this out at http://www.lernu.net

Andy said...

Kind words, Will, and very much appreciated.
Yep, some people do use grammatical correctness as a tool for condescension.
It's not very nice, and if I'm tempted to use that approach, I have to ask myself whether I'm really worried about getting the nuts and bolts right; or, has this chap just kicked my arse with a good argument, and am I just trying to get under his skin.
Yousuf's point about theatre and classical music is a bit self revealing.
He should relax, and realise that people who go after him on grammatical points probably don't have an answer to his points which can be cogently and briefly expressed.
As far as grammar is concerned, well, I had it hammered into me in my Glasgow childhood, and it just stuck; not in any formulaic way, just a sense of what works and what doesn't.
None of which prevents howlers - sometimes we all just hat the wreng buttond (!).