By Andreea Calude 26/02/2018

I don’t know how other people are, but certain things immediately evoke strong emotions for me; freshly brewed coffee makes me feel warm and cosy, hearing “kia ora” makes me feel at home, and reading pieces such as Paul Little’s latest article reminds me why I write this blog post: because people sometimes need to know the truth and not a perpetuated myth dressed up in imperial clothing.

There are a number of misconceptions in Mr Little’s piece (although I admit even I like his writing style), but here are three of the most glaring ones for me. Apparently, English does not have a language commission looking after its interests, unlike say Māori, Welsh and other languages, because it is so “flexible and adaptable”. Maybe speakers of Māori or Welsh might benefit from attending the odd yoga class, but more to the point, flexibility and adaptability have nothing to do with why English does not have such a body. The reason has more to do with politics than with linguistics (try the fact that English is not under any real or perceived threat). More bewildering still, its adaptability, claims Mr Little is the very reason English is such a global language. Explaining its widespread use by recourse to linguistic traits (English is so great, long live English!), is a bit like explaining the demise of Latin by recourse to its complex case system. Or was it because Latin speakers were crushed by where English prepositions kept ending up?

Secondly, Mr Little makes it sound like the rules of grammar were introduced in the 19th century as a gift from our forefathers for the betterment of all and to the exclusion of the “common folk”. The ‘rules’ of grammar are not a static, iron-cast, neat package with bows and ribbons. Instead, I would argue that, in agreement with a later statement in Mr Little’s article, most of these ‘rules of grammar’ are unconscious precisely because of what they are: patterns derived through social convention, from everyday use by the “common folk”. The ‘rules’ are not a holy altar on which the worthy show devotion to the God-of-English, but more like a set of useful habits which aid communication. In fact, it is only a small, handful set of such ‘rules’ that everyday people are aware of (e.g., the much beloved example of “few” vs. “less”) – and paradoxically, they are the ones which exhibit variation in the population, they are the less stable ‘rules’, which is the very reason they become conscious to us in the first place. We notice that people use them differently to each other.

The two grammars

More upsetting for Mr Little, the grammar of English has changed over time and continues to do so today, even beyond the glorious 19th century, not because the young of today are unlikely to be “bothered to wait around until you got to the end of the sentence” or because they are pondering the 50 shades of “like”, but because grammar, like every other part of the linguistic system is dynamic, alive and evolving. An important distinction that Mr Little misses is the difference between standard grammar and non-standard grammar. These two grammars are different but largely overlapping, and it is the former grammar that the “elite who want[ed] to distinguish themselves from the common folk” are keen to be associated with, simply because it is the symbol of education, prestige and affluence, not because it is in any way linguistically superior. This does not mean that the “common folk” which Mr Little seems so reluctant to be mixed up with make use of no grammar whatsoever, I can assure you, the “common folk” are also quietly enjoying the fruits of grammar, just a different grammar system.

Don’t get me wrong, I am all for teaching overtly the intricacies of grammar and I feel – perhaps like Mr Little does if I interpret him correctly – that many people these days could do with some guidance on how to navigate the language of different mediums appropriately (text language, formal writing, internet language). But, here is where we differ. I find that among my own university students, many are indeed receptive to and interested in learning about this, and I don’t think that “everything will be gone” just yet.

P.S. On the other hand, if Mr Little wrote the article only as light entertainment, as I said earlier, his style is indeed highly readable, I just worry that some may still take it seriously!

0 Responses to “I spy with my little eye a few grammar misconceptions”

  • Jaroslav Peregrin, a recipient of Robert Brandom, notes that rules are normative but act as constraints semantically. The view seems to be that the inferences one can draw semantically are negative in nature ie one cannot say both that Fred is a bachelor and also a married man. Should we distinguish syntax and semantics in these discussions?

  • I am not familiar with Peregrin’s work on this, but for me, syntax and semantics work together and spill over (from one to another).