Grammar Matters

Grammar is usually portrayed as the boring, necessary bit of language. Unwanted, unloved, it sits around like a pedant blogger, complaining about things it dislikes and expecting to be taken seriously by people who have better things to do with their lives.

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Woah there…

Grammar is like a toolkit. A mechanic needs to know what all the tools at his disposal do, even if he only uses some rarely or even, because he knows what he is doing, improvises with a tool not usually proper to the job he is doing. Great minds have written and rewritten the rules throughout history. Johann Sebastian Bach, possibly the greatest musician who ever lived, basically codified the rules of Western Classical Music and then proceeded to break them all whenever he felt like it.

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J.S. Bach about to put a parallel fifth in a chorale like an absolute madman.

Of course, this is not true: when Bach broke rules, he did so with good reason. The crew of the Enterprise knew that they were about ‘to boldly go’ because ‘to go boldly’ did not sound quite right in the context and ‘boldly to go’ is so tortured a construction it makes my eyes cross whenever I see it.

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Nothing says ‘style’ like misaligned text floating in a sea of sewage brown.

Alas, what many writers take from this is that English is purely an exercise in audience participation: ‘Welcome to Whose language is it anyway? where the words are made up and the rules don’t matter!’ What many others take away from this is that English is a mad anarchy which requires subduing, perhaps with the aid of a hefty copy of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. This is exemplified in the ongoing feud between prescriptivism and descriptivism which, to put it crudely, are opposed linguistic theories. Properly understood, they have a high degree of complementarity, but that requires a certain amount of nuance, and

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Prescriptivists argue that language has a set of rules to which we must adhere because otherwise we will descend into a primitive state of barbarism, making way for the cockroaches to rise as the new masters of Earth’s fate. Descriptivists argue that because language has no inherent meaning, only that assigned to it, the rules of language are inferred by use, up is down, black is white, existence is meaningless, and with a bit of luck that means we can avoid asking any difficult questions.

Now, both of these are extreme positions. Nowadays, people tend to prefer the descriptivist position: we can see language developing alongside the rapid changes in society, and not only does the vast majority of language use not conform to some prescriptivist golden standard, but many forms of speech and writing simply could not exist if prepositions and infinitives were immutable forces of nature. The budding writer then runs off gleefully, splitting his infinitives and letting his participles dangle all over everything, making a right mess, because he read on a blog somewhere that grammar is a Victorian invention and we should have got over it by now. The fact that the Victorians also invented photography, the telephone, the automobile, the bicycle, the electric railway, the comic book, and radio transmission, and that these have been positive influences on our lives, notwithstanding.

Descriptivism as it is sometimes understood can be reduced to an excuse: ‘I know what I meant to say, you should have understood’. Anyone who has tried to read Finnegans Wake can attest that communication requires both a communicator and an audience, and it can be hard work being an audience. I might know what I mean by ‘Abloogy woogy woo,’ but the excuse that language is malleable and words can mean whatever I want them to mean is not much use to everyone else at the PTA meeting. A writer engages an audience most effectively by enticing them, rather than demanding intense concentration or sudden bursts of decryption.

If descriptivism is the energetic rebel, then prescriptivism is the grumpy patrician, moaning about the youth of today, political correctness gone mad, and pining for the good old days when people spoke properly, and those who did not speak properly obligingly died of polio or trench-warfare where no-one could hear them. Prescriptivism has been the convenient redoubt of the pseudo-intellectual who would rather attack engage with the form than the substance of something.

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I’ll have you know I pick holes in both form and substance. That makes me a belligerent loon, not a hypocrite.

Yet, in order for society to function and in order for children to become literate we implicitly accept that prescriptivism is the norm. When someone uses an unexpected word we often say, ‘Did you mean … ?’ because we are looking for the correct word first and from that arrive at the correct meaning, and just as understanding the meaning comes from the word, understanding a work flows from understanding the form of the writing.

Therefore, it is necessary for the writer to have a firm grasp of grammar as well as lexis. This allows him to spot sentences which seem out of place or wonky, discover why, and then correct them. Part of what this blog hopes to do is allow a writer to look back over something and say, ‘Aha! Now I know why that paragraph doesn’t work!’ Grammar might not be as glamourous as the more creative side of writing, but unlike the creative spark, it can be taught, and therefore anyone can learn the principles.

This does not mean that all grammatically sound writing looks or feels the same. Grammar is a toolbox, and even without creative use of the tools, there is a lot of room to flex an author’s voice. Indeed, the structure of a defined grammar can help a writer to discover said voice. The canny reader by now will have noticed that my writing is riddled with archaisms has a few idiosyncrasies. I sprinkle commas everywhere, I use the -ize suffix instead of -ise although I am English, I use the generic he, I avoid split infinitives, and I put prepositions where they damn well belong.

Churchill wearing a suit, standing and holding a chair
There’s nothing errant about my pedantry, sir!

There are reasons for all of these. Not necessarily good reasons, but reasons nevertheless, and ones rooted in what I understand to be the purpose of language and the rôle of grammar. They also give my writing a character which is, I am told, attractive, if a little eccentric, and that suits me just fine, and not only because ‘attractive and a little eccentric’ is rather easier to accept than ‘the clear signs of a neurotic shut-in’.

If I simply wrote every sentence as it arrived in my head, rather than reviewing it and correcting it as necessary, this blog would be an appalling mess. Grammar gives a writer the tools necessary for transforming the chaotic stream of consciousness which pervades our inner lives into something comprehensible, meaningful and, we can but hope, beautiful.

3 thoughts on “Grammar Matters

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