How to use grammar

And so we come to the third of my posts on the issues I have with writing. The first two were more focused on areas of ability; the problems I have with spelling and proof-reading. This post is slightly different, as it is more to do with my attitude towards the subject. Or, more often, the attitude of others towards the subject.

I want to talk about grammar.

Grammar can be an interesting subject. What is it? It is the framework that governs the structure of a language, and a set of tools that allows us to ensure that what we say or write is interpreted the way we intended. It is the framework of unambiguity.

Now, first off, I want to state that I do agree that grammar is important. Despite what many people who know me might believe, I do endeavour to use correct grammar.* It’s just that I believe that there is something about it that is misunderstood by many people.

The English language is a magnificent mess. A mongrel of a language where words and sentences can be open to a vast array of interpretations. A famous example being the following two sentences:

A woman, without her man, is nothing

and

A woman: without her, man is nothing

Exactly the same words, in exactly the same order. Yet they have totally different meanings. I could go into all the many ways in which grammar can be correctly used, but I don’t want to. Instead, I want to complain about a certain misconception that far too many people hold to.

Yes, grammar is a vitally important part of language, and, by extension, writing. However, it should never be considered definitive.**

Too many people believe grammar has rules. It does not. “Rules” implies that there is a ‘correct’ and an ‘incorrect’ way of using our language, and that people who deviate from these “rules” are wrong. This idea is rubbish. Grammar is not a set of rules, but of guidelines.

Languages change over time. We do not speak the same way people did a century ago. Or a century before that. And so if language changes, then surely grammar must change as well. And what about accents and regional dialects. I might say “I am going to work,” while someone else may say “I’m going down t’mill,”*** but you know exactly what we both mean. Is one correct, and the other not? Vernaculars, dialects, cultures, idioms, all make a mockery of the notion that any one set of grammatical ‘rules’ is definitive.

We have, over time, created certain linguistic conventions to ensure we all know what we mean when we speak or write. These are good things, but they exist to clarify understanding, not to judge those who haven’t memorised them. If somebody uses “who” and “whom” interchangeably, it doesn’t matter. You can debate which one is technically correct, but the fact of the matter is that as long as we know exactly what the speaker means, they both are. If that person was swapping between “who” and “kumquat”, then they would have an issue. That extra ‘m’ adds no ambiguity. ****

But while grammar has no ‘rules’, it does offer us ‘tools’. These tools are called punctuation. As can be seen in the example I gave above, the correct use of punctuation is how we define clarity of meaning. They allow us to indicate the intended meaning in a set of words that might have more than one possible interpretation. And yes, there are rules for the correct use of punctuation. I’ll give you that. But those rules are to be used in the pursuit of clarity, not for their own sake.

For me, the most important thing in constructing a sentence is how it sounds; the flow and rhythm of the words that makes reading pleasurable. I use the tools of grammar to ensure that the reader can understand exactly what I am saying, but I am not going to be shackled in how I choose and arrange my words. To me, grammar simply is part of writing. To others, it is some holy law of language, and breaking it tantamount to sacrilege.

I found a wonderful quote on this subject; “Grammar is often a generic way of referring to any aspect of English that people object to.” These people are known as Grammar Nazis. These people believe there is only one way of doing something, and that is their way. They rule over us all on a magical grammar-cloud, informing us lowly word-peasants when we have spilt an infinitive or mis-conjagated with our errant words. More often than not, they bear the name like a badge of honour.

Tell me, when is the qualifier “Nazi” a good thing?

Yes, people have set down “rules” for grammar, but many of them were redundant to start with. Splitting the infinitive, for example, is a rule carried over from Latin that does not fit with a Germanic language such as English. And yet some people still argue its importance. These people are missing the point of language. *****

I’m going to be honest: my opinion on people’s attitudes to grammar has been coloured by people criticising my own. As I’ve stated before on this blog, from the age of eleven onwards I was never taught the rules of the English language as a separate topic. I learned grammar through literature. I read books, and saw how authors throughout history assembled and used the English Language.

And do you know what? I think that this is the better way to learn. Rather than sitting in a classroom and memorising cold hard rules, I was immersed in great literature. I read how the language worked, rather than being told how it didn’t.

They say the most important thing for any budding writer to do is read as many varied books as possible. This is why. Different authors will have different styles and feels to their work. Also, as I said before, language has changed over the years, and so reading books from different periods shows us how grammar and language are fluid.

I’m not saying that grammar is not important. It is. But it has to be understood that it is a framework, and what that framework is for.

My work is far from perfect. I’m not trying to argue that I am somehow above all the petty concerns of others. If someone reads my work and tells me that a paragraph isn’t as clear as it could be, that there is some ambiguity, that means that the grammar is wrong. This, I will fix. However, if someone tells me that I’ve broken some obscure tenet of the English language, set down by some dusty scholar two hundred years ago, I will ignore them. If I like the way it sounds, and it is clear enough to understand exactly what I mean, then I consider it acceptable.

So, to summarise, I do not consider grammar to be concrete. To put it simply; grammar equals unambiguity. If the reader/listener knows exactly what the writer/speaker means, then the grammar is correct. There are no rules to ensure this happens, but there are tools. Tools we must learn how to use.

*

And so there we are. Three blog posts discussing the three parts of writing that cause me the most issues: My problems with spelling, my issues with proof-reading my own work, and my disagreements about grammar. I hope they give some insight into how I work, or at least offer some excuse for the myriad errors I am sure you all find in my writing.

*

*Several years ago I was given a book entitled My Grammar and I (or should that be ‘Me’?): Old-school ways to sharpen your english. I’m honestly not sure whether it was intended as a joke gift or not, but either way it is invaluable to me. Mostly, to be honest, as a resource for the use of punctuation.

** Do you see what I mean about the inconsistencies of language? Even the guidelines set to guard against change, change over time. Isn’t the English language a wonderful thing?

*** Please don’t leave any comments pointing out that no one has ever actually used this cliched phrase. It’s just an example.

**** Incidentally, if you want to know the “official” way to learn when to use “Who” and “Whom”, The Oatmeal did a great comic on it. But even then he ends with the fact that the only real difference is that “Whom” sounds classier, whether it is correctly used or not.

***** Most of the blame for this attitude can be laid on one Robert Lowth, and his 1762 book; A Short Introduction to English Grammar. Research him if you like. Essentially, he was the first grammar-nazi, centuries before there were actual nazis. That’s quite impressive.

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