Hey ho! Let’s go!
There are several dictionary meanings applied to the word ‘grammar’. For the purposes of this ongoing blog I am only majorly concerned with a few – although the minorly relevant definitions will get a look-in further down. All the definitions that follow concern British English – or English English for those of narrower outlook. The definitions offered below are mine and, going forward, I make no bones about it, ‘Americanisms’ are welcomed here. (I put ‘Americanisms’ in quotes because many of the terms thus classified, then disdained, dismissed and discriminated against, actually ain’t, OK.)
So, grammar grammar hey!
1. the order and organisation of a language – in Yoda words, syntax it is.
2. a set of rules (real or imagined) that set limits on the ‘correct’ use of a language – obviously this covers all parts of speech, punctuation, sentence construction, and usage, and may include, though not without controversy, accent, spelling and etymological justifications.
Actually, there is a nuanced sense derived from 1 and 2 above. And I kid you not, this is the one that really gets my goat, kids. Full stop, period.
3. when used by some as a catchall justification for reinforcement of the ‘fact’ that the user is better at English and, by extension, superior.
‘Grammar’ appears in social media as a snarky one-word, sometimes hashtagged criticism – smugly disdaining ‘errors’ of style or form all the while ignoring content and sense; building a wall that overlooks inconvenient points of view. Ah well, it saves grammar trolls engaging with the real world, I suppose.
‘Grammar’ appears in the mouths of grammarian supremacists as an excuse to direct scorn at people who don’t share their ‘superior’ ‘linguistic’ understanding (for which, read ‘as it was’ when that contemptuous supremacist was last in formal education). You can hear vituperation underscoring the bluster: ‘Grammar, from the Greek, grammatikē, originally, obviously, then via Latin, gramma, and there can be no arguing with Latin, until it arrived here in the late Middle English times from the Old French gramaire; ergo I am better than you.’ It’s almost as if English Grammar is a divine creation and a whatchamacallit thingummy of worship. It’s not.
For now I am choosing not to unknot the differing grammatical requirements of spoken and written English. I’m sure I’ll get to that elsewhere. No doubt. Also, before progressing, it might, perhaps, be as well to point out that this – what(?), diatribe, rant – whatever is not aimed at those who keep their ideas of good grammar to themselves (except book and blog writers obvs), and are happy to lead by example whilst communicating their g/olden ways by osmosis. I am perfectly sure that many of this latter class of old-school pupils are equally convinced that the world is on its way to hell on a new-fangled hoverboard, but they have learnt sufficient good manners not to up the angsty with audible sighs, tuts and nags.
Yet some – I choose to call them ‘grammarian supremacists’ – when faced with the metres of modern English, and clinging to the safety of British imperial measurement, feel the need to decry their unmeasured disappointment. These are the people who pedantically ‘tut’ at errant apostrophes, deplore ‘Americanisms’ and disdain your syntax. Worse, they will reflexively deny that language is a democratic engine and not a tool of dictatorship. There is even an unraveling spool of thought that denies the possibility of clear thinking if it is not conducted/constructed through the medium of well-schooled, grammatically-sound English. User-ownership of a language is the sort of ‘modern thinking’ that makes grammarian supremacists uneasy… as they walk among (amongst?) us with an utterable belief that the English Language was perfect on the g/olden day it was schooled into them.
Such learning, of course, was often instructively reinforced in the rebellious, recalcitrant or less able by rule of cane (other instruments of corporal punishment were available). Those were they days, eh? When we all believed what we were told – because it was beaten into us. Yahoo! for the repression of expression. It was a good thing because we were told so, so do as you’re told, you little so and so, and don’t dare to argue. Nowadays you have to rely on certain organs of the media for that kind of browbeating certainty.
BTW, I prefer the term ‘grammarian supremacist’ to ‘grammar Nazi’ or ‘grammer (sic) pedant’ but it’s your choice. You pick the words that suit you best. Or that you happen to remember first.
But – aaarghhh! – grammarian supremacists! What do these grammar-sneerers, social-engineerers and tutters think they are communicating with their improving gripes and exaltations? Wielding ‘grammar’ as a wishful-thinking weapon that cuts down the plebs and, with Judge Dredd-like expediency, puts people in their place society-wise. OUCH! Theirs is not civilised behaviour. These self-righteous busybodies downgrade our language by their attempts to control or exclude differently expert users. And at the end of the day, with all due respect, when all is said and done, what is achieved by such pedantic antics?
Not a lot. If that much.
And it’s a proper shame, because grammar is good stuff.
Of course, let’s be honest, it’s not just grammar that brings out the worst in people; and even the innate snobbery that grammar recognition reinforces does work both ways. Every which way in fact. & there are so many ways to count and account for our differences.
- A is for accent.
- B is for body-language.
- C is for class.
- D is for dialect.
- E is for education.
- F is for fashion.
- G is for grammar.
- H is for history.
I could go on.
A century ago, before the discovery of body-language, George Bernard Shaw wrote, ‘It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.’ I like to think I am better than that – not bloody likely! – but if it was good enough for my father and his father before him (a hundred years later other genders options are available) then that should be quite enough to be going on with. You say tomato and I say tomato so does it really it matter if potato’s is not the plural of potato?
Is that question rhetorical?
What is grammar?
If words are the bricks that build cities (and empires?) of communication then grammar is the cement that holds them in place. Grammar is a wonder-stuff. It’s elastic. It stretches and grips. There’s no absolute need for any two pieces of English to express the same thought in quite the same way. For that way cliché-madness lies. In short, grammar is like cement yet not set in stone. It’s like elastic, holding things in place but, when it suits you, easy to get in and out of. Grammar is plastic like Silly Putty. We need it.
Look at how many types of English there are… There’s, like, literally shedloads. In no particular order, to whet your appetite: multifarious colloquial variations and lingua francas (or linguae francae?), dialects, journalese, small talk, plain English, MLE (multicultural London English), Jafaican, broadcast English, jargons, slangs, text (and social network)–speak, standard, legalese, and so on. And so on. And so on. From script to speech. Each has somewhat different grammar requirements to the standard of English that is deemed to be proper and demanded for ‘correctness’ “if you want to get on in the world”. & it’s at this point that yer actual grammarian supremacist brandishes job-letter English as the unanswerable example of how and why getting your grammar ‘right’ is so important. It’s a tired argument. Why should fluency in workaday cliché be an asset?
OK, I know. I added the second sentence to cheer me up. Honestly, somewhere in the region of ‘dynamic’, I was beginning to lose the will to live. But that first sentence! Woah! That’s something to aspire to, isn’t it? Grammatically correct, good word choice, well spellchecked, terminally dull. Conventional. It tells you everything and nothing. And if that really is the best excuse many grammarian supremacists have for sticking to the rules of grammar then what’s the point? Seriously LOL on what grounds ’n’ that, yeh, why should bad speling get in the way and a lack of punctuation and well-constructing a sentence stop an aspiring barrister getting a great job making cappuccino?
The language belongs to everyone. Yes, certain forms of usage will, no doubt, continue to favour the fluent but that’s because language is also a badge of inclusion and identity. That works both ways, both sides of the street. In this evolving digital world, conventional style may well include you out. Let’s suppose that you write programs for a living – it’s all you ever wanted to do – so understanding the grammar of computer code is essential. Not so much so the prescribed grammar of language use. Binary beats vocab 24/7. So, the next definitive sense:
4. In computing, a set of rules regarding valid or logical input.
Is it too much to suggest that the majority who think that #grammar should stand still have little or no idea of contemporary language use? (That’s my point made in exactly 140 characters, @Twitter fans.)
“Ah,” argues the grammarian supremacist, “but this is a matter of conventional wisdom. That’s why there are rules, e.g. ‘Americanisms are to be greatly deplored’. It’s all perfectly sensible: things have to be this way or that because it is a rule. You see, grammar hasn’t actually changed since Shakespeare.” A pause, then comes the rhetorical hammer blow, “If you don’t understand grammar then you really can’t think clearly.”
The quotation marks, which characterise the paragraph above and are not employed here in any ironic, satiric nor even American manner (there is a difference in style), contain a paraphrased and compounded but nonetheless utterly non-fiction set of beliefs. It is, however, difficult to argue against such steamroller, almost flat-earth illogic (perhaps articles of faith would be a better turn of phrase) if only because at that moment that is unleashed in discourse you will probably have been rendered totally at a loss for…
Take a breath. Try not to laugh. The sincere grammarian supremacist is merely spouting ‘conventional wisdom’, conflating a certain amount of truth with a degree of tosh.
Here’s a transgressive thought: the English language is conventionally referred to by the feminine pronoun (‘English as she is spoke…’) and is therefore, presumably, required to know its place in the service of a conventional patriarchy. That kind of deviant thinking is dangerously digressive and, as we all know, any non-conformity is dangerous to the self-serving status quo…. Like diminishing the value of any figure of authority by imagining he or she sitting on the toilet. Try it. It works.
Moving on and back on track: socio-political landscapes shift as do the requirements of any language that serves our ideas. That is as opposed to drives our ideas. And the contemporary wisdom of our time may in time become conventional. It’s as well to remember that a lot of old wives’ tales were contemporary once upon a time. “Old wives, of course, knew their place.”
Take that proclamation, “Grammar hasn’t actually changed since Shakespeare.” What utter claptrap! Our language is in a continual state of change. Of course it is. We all know that the English language is not the same as it was, say, fifty years ago. It has evolved. We have moved on. Society has changed (ask the old wives). The English language is something we inherit but our heritage comes with baggage. It is intertwined with Acts, Beliefs and Concepts that we may have individually or societally grown out of. Yet it’s an ABC we are still struggling to get away from. And to hold that well-known Midlands bard as an exemplar of changelessness is ‘the most unkindest cut of all’. The English language, reflecting the evolving history of its speakers, in all its magnificent pomp, flux and regrettable circumstance, has reshaped with the times. Bish bash bosh! Shakespeare, whoever he may have been (let’s not go there…) and his prejudices and poetry aside, was writ to be spoke. His canon is full of grammar clangers. I mean, who doesn’t know the difference between ‘who’ and ‘whom’? Shakespeare, that’s whom.
And if you are lost for words sometimes, so what? Make it up. Shakespeare did. Bend your words to fit the rhythm. Words are horses for courses. Word-horse (I just made that up!). Workhorse. Punctuation too.
As for ‘conventional wisdom’, where would we all be if we were all to be conventional. Nothing could nor would ever change. Which is, possibly, the deepest, darkest wish of the grammarian supremacist: a never-ending excuse for the repression of expression, based on an unquestioning faith that, once upon a time in a hazy g/olden age past, there was a state of perfection when grammar coalesced and history stood still as the rules of language were written down. Yet when a word-horse clops in the still waters of language the ripples always disturb the surface tension between past and future form. Grammarian supremacists, to be fair, only wish to enforce the best. Alas, the measure by which they seek to rule our tongue is reactionary.
But, like, life’s not like that. It’s an ongoing struggle. We English-users are moving on but the struggle continues. In fact, you can bet your life that another grammar blog or book has just been published. Perhaps this is it.
5. a book of grammar.
Most grammars are full of rules and justifications. This or that has to be this way or that because it’s the rules (…or because of its rules). Page after page of dos and don’ts. If it’s in a scholarly volume it must be true. Quod erat demonstrandum. Market-domination trumps consumer resistance.
And two positives can’t make a negative. Yeah, right.
Back in the old school day (when ‘groovy’ was word-of-the-day) I went to a grammar where the cane was used to reinforce the discipline of learning. “It never did me any harm,” said the slavering teacher with a nervous tic. I read grammars. Subject-verb-object: that’s a text-book sentence. I read where past and present tenses collide. I read and reread grammar in grammars at grammar. I reverbed my subject and object.
6. (informal) a grammar school.
Then I grew up and, oh, how this subject objected. Fundamentally, in practice and in principle. I accept, of course, that each of our personal grammars must be inflected with a nostalgic perspective for g/olden times of conformity or r/evolution. And, if I am honest, I am no more fundamentally right or wrong than you are but, as it’s my blog, let’s say I’m right.
7. the fundamental principles of a subject (such as an art or science).
“I don’t know much about science but I know what I like. I like the rules, the certainties,” says an imagined grammarian supremacist. “Tut. That sort of thing certainly wasn’t art when I was at school.”
Finally, grammar, as every grammarian supremacist and Mrs Grundy may be delighted to know, is also listed in the Oxford English Dictionary as a verb.
(obsolete) to discuss grammar.
So, there you are. I have grammared. Herein have I grammared obsolescently and ended up shooting off at tangents and ranting about grammarian supremacists. In many ways I have been teaching grammar to suck eggs – the end result of which is always an empty shell. Shhh… it happens.
And, whatever anyone else says, the future belongs evolutionaries everywhere.
 ‘majorly’ is OK, so why not ‘minorly’?
 Why not? I am not anti a good pun.
 George Bernard Shaw, from the preface to Pygmalion, 1916.
 George Bernard Shaw, Pygmalion: Act III, 1914.
 C is 100 in Latin, set in stone; cis – less so.
 Like one of those shops where if you have to ask how much it costs then you can’t afford it. Nonsense. But it keeps you in your place.