Word Nerd: First Thing We Do, We Shoot All The Grammarians
5 years ago
Do you proudly consider yourself a “bit of a grammar Nazi”*? Do you lament the widespread use of “incorrect” grammar and spellings among kids these days, and rejoice at the stupid Spelling, Punctuation and Grammar tests that kids now have to do throughout their school years? Did you fist-pump all the way through Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots and Leaves? Are you, in fact, the kind of person who’s more likely to respond to a Facebook post to correct the original post’s spelling than to engage with the point?
Well, give it a rest.
Insisting on “correct” grammar makes as much sense as insisting on “correct” toppings for your morning toast. There’s really no such thing, in any objective way; and the pretence that there is is very often rooted in false assumptions, faulty logic and personal prejudice. The self-appointed guardians of the English language present, as inviolable law, rules that in many cases arose only in the past few centuries and which contradict usages dating back to the beginnings of the language. It’s basically arseholes led by fools.
I shall demonstrate all this below.
Prescription and Description
There are, in grammatical study, two schools of thought: prescriptive and descriptive. Prescriptive grammar seeks to impose rules on English usage, based on... well, various logics. Descriptive grammar seeks to accurately model (and come up with Scrabble-winning jargon for) the rules of English as used. The key phrases are “this is how English should be spoken/written,” and “this is how English is spoken/written.” And, well, we all know how far should be gets us in this world.
English grammar first arose as a study in the 1580s (grammar has been studied since ancient days; but for most of history, the only really acceptable languages to study academically were Latin and Greek; you know, proper languages you write Bibles and alchemy textbooks in). So when, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, people finally began to recognise that English was maybe a thing, the first English grammars were written in Latin; and the first English grammarians were keen on the idea of English following Latin rules. Early grammars were firmly prescriptive, and along the lines of “this is how Latin does it, so English was probably meant to work like this and we’ve just been getting it wrong.” This shifted over time, and when the grammar boom began in the eighteenth century,† many grammarians were pushing for a specifically English grammar; but even then, prescriptive grammars were still very much the rule.
Because the early English grammarians were... well, they were academics, by their time’s standards, but frankly that didn’t mean a lot. They were clergymen, idle aristocrats, the children of wealthy industrialists: a privileged elite, essentially, who were very comfortable with the idea that, to be taken seriously, English had to be elevated from its mundane roots, and they were the ones to do it.
What do I mean by this? What’s wrong with it? I’m glad you asked.
Probably no-one did more to encumber our school children with inaccurate and pointless rules than his eminence, Bishop Robert Lowth, a fascinating character who was apparently so humble he refused to put his name to his celebrated A Short Introduction to English Grammar (1762)... but apparently not so much that he didn’t mind totally making shit up about how English should be spoken.
You know how you shouldn’t end a clause on a preposition (e.g. the “to” in “he’s who the letter was sent to”)? That’s Lowth. He even acknowledges that he’s wrong – “This is an Idiom which our language is strongly inclined to; ‡ it prevails in common conversation, and suits very well with the familiar style in writing” – but apparently “the placing of the Preposition before the Relative is more graceful, as well as more perspicuous; and agrees much better with the solemn and elevated Style.” Oh, right. Well, as long as you have some sort of technical basis for your argument, dude.
A Short Introduction does this again and again. Not using whose as the possessive form of which (“applied,” according to Lowth, “to things as well as persons; I think, improperly”)? Yeah, that’s him. Not using who as a direct object (i.e. “who do you know?” rather than “whom do you know?”)? Lowth again, in spite of the fact that he only condemned this in response to all the damn people doing it.
But Lowth just set the ball rolling, telling the academic world that it was totally okay to just make up rules for English. In 1834, The New-England Magazine printed an anonymous letter by “P,” which told us not to split infinitives (you know: “to boldly go” and so on) because “The practice of not separating the particle from its verb, is so general and uniform among good authors, and the exceptions are so rare.”** It’s no doubt a coincidence that, in Latin, you can’t split infinitives, which are only ever one word.
And literally? Literally everyone was perfectly happy, using it in its original sense (“letter by letter”), in its acquired sense (“non-figuratively”) and in its poetic sense (as an intensifier, ironic or otherwise), but that’s not good enough for the kings of language. It wasn’t until 1909 when Ambrose Bierce’s Write it Right told us off: “It is bad enough to exaggerate, but to affirm the truth of the exaggeration is intolerable.”
Und so weiter, und so weiter, und so weiter...
Ultimately, is there a problem with proposing rules because, subjectively, they sound good to you? Not at all. If you have a good ear, you’ll probably help people be better writers. The problem arises when these rules are presented as absolute and eternal, in spite of the fact that the usages they condemn date back hundreds of years before the rule was written, and include some of the most respected authors in the English canon.
Grammar in the Modern Age
And for the past few generations, we’ve changed our outlook. We recognise that the study of grammar is, pretty much by definition, descriptive rather than prescriptive. “Proper English” has been replaced by “Standard English,” a consciously artificial dialect sitting alongside the thousands of other dialects spoken around the Anglophone world, and no more authoritative than any of them. Today, respected academics study new internet constructions with delight.
Is there a value to this artificial English, this formal dialect against which we measure all other dialects? I’d say so. It’s useful having a consensus language, even if it’s one no-one actually speaks. It’s useful having a language to be official in, to write our newspapers in, to refer to when talking about English as a single thing. But serious grammarians no longer see it as sacred.
Write well, write clearly, write engagingly, and don’t sweat the small stuff. And most importantly, don’t go shitting on other people on Facebook for failing to use a rule that was never a rule until some eighteenth-century stuffed-shirt decided English should be a bit more Latin.
* You do get that Nazis are bad, yeah? Indiana Jones and Inspector Foyle hate you right now.
†By the year 1700, sixteen English grammars had been written ever. By 1800, there were another two hundred and seventy.
‡Yes, he actually ends a clause on a preposition in his sentence condemning ending clauses on prepositions.
**“Good” authors presumably being “authors who don’t split infinitives.”