More on grammar

Much discussion of language, particularly on the web, goes nowhere because those involved are very often talking about different things. In considering approaches to language, as in all else, it’s important to be clear what we’re talking about. In particular, the word ‘grammar’ is bandied around without much thought as to what it might be.

Some have commandeered the word to cast a cloak of spurious respectability over their prejudices and ignorance. Nevile Gwynne (here and here) is one such. It is true that the Oxford English Dictionary’s third definition of ‘grammar’ is

An individual’s manner of using grammatical forms; speech or writing judged as good or bad according as it conforms to or violates grammatical rules; also speech or writing that is correct according to those rules.

It is certainly used in that way, but ‘an individual’s manner’, ‘judged as good or bad’ and ‘speech or writing that is correct according to those rules’ all imply a degree of subjectivity, whereas it’s more helpful to think of grammar as a matter of objective fact. Specifically, the rules of grammar tell us how speakers of a language put together units of meaning to make words, and how they put words together to make sentences. 600 years ago, John Colet had much the same idea about Latin:

In the beginning men spake not Latin because such rules were made, but, contrariwise, because men spake Latin the rules were made. That is to say, Latin speech was before the rules, and not the rules before the Latin speech.

There is no evidence, for example, to support a rule of English grammar that says they can only refer to a plural antecedent. By contrast, there is plenty of evidence to support the rule that the past tense of regular verbs is formed by the addition of -ed to the plain form. What linguists specialising in grammar do is search for such evidence and codify the results.

Style is quite a different matter, one not of fact, but of opinion. Some may say that they referring to a singular antecedent is awkward or ugly or illogical or whatever you like. They may conclude that for those reasons its use makes an utterance ineffective. Others may take an opposite view. What neither can do say is that it is ungrammatical, when there is so much evidence for its use in the prose of reputable writers over the centuries.

It’s like looking at someone’s shirt or wallpaper. You may not like the colour of the shirt or the pattern of the wallpaper, and you’re quite entitled not to like them. But you can’t deny that what you’re looking is a shirt or wallpaper.


Filed under English Language, Grammar

7 responses to “More on grammar

  1. genproofreads

    Nice differentiation between grammar and style. I, too, believe that certain constructs of grammar may be subjective. A lot goes into one’s experience of language — regional differences, etc. This is not, however, an excuse for lazy, incorrect writing.


  2. Thank you. It’s a difference which many of those who comment on language don’t seem to appreciate.

    It depends what you men by ‘lazy, incorrect writing’. I believe that a piece of discourse stands or falls to the extent that it does or doesn’t achieve its originator’s communicative purpose. By that I mean not only conveying meaning, but doing so in such a way that it will have the desired effect on the reader or listener.


    • I agree completely on your last remark about having the desired effect on the reader or listener. I recently discussed this very subject with another reviewer at my newspaper. We concluded that a newspaper film review in our paper is intended to give information to the reader that he or she can use to decide whether they’d want to see the film. Information about the filmmakers, actors, writers, about the subject addressed by the film if it applies, and about the genre itself is all interesting and good but should be included as it is relevant to the purpose of the piece.

      We are now agreed that getting down right away to the film itself, its success in attaining the goals of its makers, how well the actors did, the music, effects, etc., is stylistically important, and that while sometimes a film may demand a longer and substance-filled review (if space allows), the main point is to get the practical info to the reader and allow him/her to decide about reading more and, of course, seeing the movie.


  3. Pingback: Even More on Grammar | Caxton

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