Grammar precision: why hasn’t that boat sailed?

by Marie Marshall

woman-writing-letters-by-charles-dana-gibsonOne of the most common memes on Facebook, at least in the circles I frequent, is the exasperated declaration about a point of grammar. Grammatical rules are a sticking point for so many people. Now, I know I’m writing from a position of privilege here (I checked – I often check my privilege, y’know!) inasmuch as my education was grounded in ‘correct’ grammar, and the mode of communication I was brought up with is Received Standard English. However, I am often driven to comment that these rules are arbitrary. They are. They were devised in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, by gentlemen with the benefit of classical education, who observed that the English language was changing.

Changing? Whoa! Who knew?

Languages change. The English language has changed radically in my lifetime and – know what? – by and large no one noticed. We simply went on speaking and writing English. The concerns of those erudite gentlemen in periwigs and britches have been echoed in every generation since then. They made a conscious choice to base their concept of English grammar on Latin grammar, even though the Latin language had had, until then, only a very limited influence on English. Hence, for example, their rule that one should never end a phrase with a preposition. Such a thing is actually impossible in Latin. However, it was current usage in 18c English and remains so, despite them, to this day. You probably noticed I broke their rule (deliberately) in the first paragraph above. Did that bother you? I doubt if it did too much damage to your sensibilities, any more than the many neologisms did that I use in this article.

There is a word for this insistence on the purity of grammatical rules. It is called ‘prescriptivism’. There can be times when its adherents will stick to something even against good advice. Not so long ago I posted a piece about the split infinitive, in which I quoted Fowler at length. Fowler, of course, is the grand-daddy of prescriptivism, the go-to guy, The Man, the settler of arguments on English usage. His advice on splitting infinitives? That people waste their time avoiding them, and in avoiding them produce ugly, unwieldy English. But – if I may begin a sentence with a conjunction – I am still getting feedback on that, from people who insist that to split an infinitive is plain damned wrong, and would go all round the houses to actually avoid doing so.

Let’s take another example – the ‘double negative’, as in ‘Ain’t Got No’ from Hair. The double negative as an intensifier has been around for centuries. It is there in French, which was arguably the single most important influence on the development of Middle and Early Modern English grammar. It is there in many vernaculars throughout the English-speaking world. When Geoffrey Chaucer wrote

He nevere yet no vileynye ne sayde
In al his lyf unto no maner wight

or Joe Tex sang

Ain’t gonna bump no mo’ with no big fat woman

is anyone unclear about what they meant? And yet because a double negative is impossible in Latin it becomes un-passable in English! (By the way, in the examples quoted, Joe Tex uses a triple-negative intensifier, and Chaucer – arguably – a quadruple.)

Of course this is the moment at which modern prescriptivists say, “We know how the English language developed, but that is irrelevant – it has these rules now.” Do they have a point?

Anyone schooled in linguistics will tell you that the proper study of language is into how people use it. From the time of the classically-educated prescriptivists, and in the generations since then during which the grammatical rules were taught by rote, right though to today when prescriptivists fight a keen rearguard action, the English language has gone through a very dynamic period. It has spread world-wide, it has given birth to scores of vernaculars, creoles, and contact-languages, it has lived a life full of action and incident, it has seen an efflorescence of creativity, it has been subjected to the innovations of information technology, it has changed and developed markedly, it has – and this is a very important point to remember – moved far beyond the confines of its traditional bases such as Britain, Britain’s white inheritor-countries (Canada, Australia, and New Zealand), and the United States. In moving away from these it has weakened any right people there have to consider themselves sources of normative power, gatekeepers of the supposed purity of the language.

Prescriptivism has, however, remained a recognisable influence upon the language. Students of linguistics realise this; prescriptivists, on the other hand, need to realise that it is only one influence among many. That’s how it has always been. The developments I cited above all happened despite, not because of prescriptivism. If prescriptivism in how one may use the language had been the be-all and end-all, then there would have been no Finnegans Wake with its stream-of-consciousness, no Catcher in the Rye with its colloquial register, no On The Road with its unedited spontaneity, no A Clockwork Orange with its exuberant conlang. There would have been virtually no poetry!

Prescriptivists also need to scrutinise themselves further, and ask themselves, honestly, whether their concerns are truly governed by matters of language. So often language campaigns, particularly by politicians, have been coded references to other social matters – youth behaviour, class, race, social order, national identity, for example. I’m not standing apart here and pointing a finger; each of us has his or her own cognitive biases, of which we are hardly ever aware. I am sure I do, as much as anyone else.

I’m going to reverse track on this argument and propose that there are ways in which a certain level of prescriptivism can be viewed as natural and beneficial. Whilst personally I don’t care where a preposition is, whether a negative is double, or whether an infinitive is split, I do care about clarity. If I were writing a notice for the benefit of the general public I would want to be sure that as many as possible took as its meaning that which I had intended; this level of consensus ad idem can only be reached if there is an agreed standard between myself and my readership. Narrowing it down further, if I am in a plane, I travel more easily if I can take it for granted that such a consensus exists between the pilot and the air-traffic-controller. Go anywhere and you will find that people like the assurance that what they say today in a conversation across their neighbour’s fence, will mean the same thing tomorrow. In countries where English is a force of new focus – the expanding economy of India, for example – there are prescriptivist movements growing which, though they might trace their origin to the English of the Raj, have their eyes on a particular issue of local or national concern. Even in a dynamic and changing context such as the slang of the young, wherever in the world they may be found, in New York, Singapore, or Bangalore, there are rules no matter how transient they may be. Rules, whether artificial and imposed, or natural and usage-driven, do exist in language in general, and in English in particular.

I believe it behoves us all to realise that the history of the English language is not over. No one could have predicted its state today, and no one can predict its state in the future. It is a beautiful language in which to create. It is a language which, out there in the world, enjoys the dynamism and tensions of a myriad of cultural encounters. It is at the same time a natural thing with a life of its own, which twists in our hands as we try to grasp it, and on the other hand a far-from-neutral political tool in the same hands. It is a child still, and children steadfastly refuse to grow up in our own image.