Friday, April 11, 2014

What is Grammar?

"She was nice to be looked at by."
 Julian Barnes, Metroland, page 116

There are two approaches to “doing” grammar, the descriptive approach, which describes how a language is used, and the prescriptive approach, which prescribes how a language should be used. The latter raises the question of who has the authority to decide, a question which often has a political dimension, as in the conflict between demotic Greek and katharevousa. 

The desire to preserve somebody’s idea of “standard” English accounts for pronouncements such as the ban on double negatives, with its spurious appeal to logic in claiming that two negatives make a positive. By this logic, there’s nothing that Piaf doesn’t regret. Would the grammarians who reject “We never had nothing” be happier with “We ain’t never had nothing”? Ποτέ δεν ξέρεις.

A similarly specious rule is the prohibition on using a preposition to end a sentence with. Again, this is based on a false logic, which asserts that a preposition has to come before something else because that’s what “preposition” means. It’s claimed that violating such rules produces substandard language, although the quotation at the beginning of this article, from one of the most elegant living English writers, would indicate otherwise.

The origins of such claims can be traced back to the belief that English should conform to the grammar of Latin, as English is a degenerate form of this more noble language. This accounts for the prohibition on splitting the infinitive by the insertion of an adverb, as in the phrase “to boldly go”. As the infinitive in Latin is a single word, splitting it is impossible, and therefore shouldn’t be allowed in English either.

So does this mean that nothing’s sacred and anything goes? Not at all. Even if large numbers of people use a form, that doesn’t make it correct if it contravenes a genuine logical rule of English. A case in point is the use of “less” with countable nouns, as in “less people”. This is clearly wrong as “less” is the comparative form of “little”, which is used with uncountable nouns (“little sugar”), while “fewer” is used with plural countable nouns.

However, language is continuously evolving, and as teachers we should be aware of the shifts in usage over time. This awareness may give us a less pedantic and more practical view of what to focus on and what to correct. One “error” we very commonly hear is “the same with” instead of “the same as”. But reading texts written before the nineteenth century, we realize that this used to be standard English. So our students aren’t actually wrong, just a couple of hundred years late.

Instead of devoting time and effort to such insignificant issues, it would be more useful to focus our teaching on the errors that actually obscure communication. This means looking at authentic language in use and noting what language is appropriate in different communicative contexts. In particular, we need to realize that the grammar of spoken language is quite different from the grammar of written language, and adjust our teaching accordingly. For example, the insistence that students should answer questions with a complete sentence makes them sound very unnatural. We need to listen less to the “experts” who tell us what grammar should be, and listen more to the users of the language, who show us what grammar actually is.

 Peter Beech -

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