Today is National Grammar Day in the US and many would like to see it adopted in the UK. But what is grammar? And why is it considered so important? We asked The Good Grammar Company’s Kathy Salaman to give us the lowdown.
Grammar: the final frontier
These are the voyages of the Grammar Pedant
Its lifetime mission
To dictate against strange new words
To seek out those who write badly, ruining civilizations
To boldly point out mistakes that … . hey – who put that split infinitive in there?
‘Grammar’ is a word guaranteed to unleash strong emotions, almost always negative. For many over the age of 50, the word evokes agonising memories of parsing, declensions and, heaven help us, dangling participles. For others, the word causes a reaction similar to that of a rabbit caught in a car’s headlights: they know they should be doing something with their writing, but for the life of them they can’t think what.
But there is a small number for whom ‘grammar’ is a matter of life and death. For these creatures, every piece of writing must fit narrow, prescriptive ideals. Such beings belong to the species known as ‘grammar pedants’, and angering one of these anal creatures should be avoided. Especially on social media. (Try it!)
For those who think I am exaggerating this point, I refer you to the case of Bryan Henderson, a software engineer and Wikipedia editor, who made headlines recently because of his mission to correct all uses of the phrase ‘comprised of’. To date, he has corrected 47,000 instances of that mistake alone on Wikipedia.
Recently, I was invited to talk about this news story on local radio and made it clear that, in my opinion, the man is a complete loon. But I must confess that I was being a tad hypocritical. If I had the time, I would happily spend my remaining days correcting all cases where ‘infer’ is used instead of ‘implied’ and shooting at the crotch of anyone who dares to say ‘I literally died/ exploded/ fell apart.’
I’ll make it bloody literal for you. Bang!
Not many will have failed to notice the media’s current moral panic with ‘the state of English today’, particularly amongst young people who, apparently, can write using only text speak. I can swear that, during my 12 years as a teacher, I was never handed an essay comprising text speak; however, I have noticed that young people are inclined to be less aware of the basics, even those who achieve good English GCSEs. It is not pupils’ fault that the basics are no longer taught routinely in schools (this is a subject for another article) and the issue of declining standards in English language (not just grammar, but spelling and punctuation as well) is not just the preserve of the young.
I refer you to the case of Bryan Henderson, a software engineer and Wikipedia editor, who made headlines recently because of his mission to correct all uses of the phrase ‘comprised of’. To date, he has corrected 47,000 instances of that mistake alone on Wikipedia.
In business, it is important to create a good impression when writing to clients or other companies, and many employers and business people will frown on those basic mistakes that are, allegedly, becoming more widespread.
But to what extent should we have to subscribe to all those grammar ‘rules’? Does it really matter if you like to liberally split your infinitives or use a preposition to end your sentence with? Indeed, as well as the last two very obvious examples, I have broken several of the sacred ‘rules’ in this piece. (I won’t point them out as I’m sure there are some out there, sweating profusely while typing with one hand, just waiting to show me the error of my ways. Believe me, I hear from these people a lot. They’re wankers. Literally.)
I acknowledge that the most important job of any language is to convey meaning clearly and that seeing ‘your’ used instead of ‘you’re’ on Facebook, although annoying, does not detract from the meaning. On the other hand, it is unfair that some have the opportunity to be more discerning with their choice of vocabulary, sentence structure and punctuation whilst others unwittingly continue to make basic errors.
To be labelled ‘illiterate’ or ‘uneducated’ simply because one has not been taught that there is a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to structure a clause or use an apostrophe is unfair. Once one knows the rules, one can break them with impunity to create a desired effect – as the best writers have always done – whilst sticking two fingers up at anyone who objects.
Having said that, we do have every right to expect more from the media hacks who love to bemoan the country’s falling literacy standards, so there is no excuse for headlines such as the one found within this link. ‘Cameron Diaz encourages women to keep their pubic hair in her new book’ is ambiguous, and deserves the answer: ‘But what if I want to keep my pubic hair in my new book?’
This ambiguity could have been avoided easily by moving the prepositional phrase to the beginning of the sentence to read:
‘In her new book, Cameron Diaz encourages women to keep their pubic hair.’
Not as likely to appeal to my juvenile sense of humour, but much clearer and less likely to result in Ms Diaz’s postman having to deal with coarse black stuff protruding from thousands of Jiffy Bags and messing up his sack.
Grammar is important because it helps to clarify meaning. Having said that, it does not remain static: it evolves to suit its users. Its importance today is largely because it is the standard against which we are judged more than because we need it to be understood. The fact that there still appears to be a two-tier system, whereby some are exposed to the basics of our language and some are not, is a bigger issue than the misuse of ‘comprised of’.
TEST YOUR GRAMMAR:
How confident are you with your own grammar, vocabulary and punctuation? Try this quick quiz to find out.
1. How and why would a pedant change the following sentences?
a This is the friend I went with.
b Others continue to unwittingly make basic errors.
c But do we really need to subscribe to all these grammar rules?
2. Which spelling is correct in British English?
a I need to practice my grammar skills.
b I need to practise my grammar skills.
3. Which of the following statements uses the correct pronoun?
a He passed the message to my brother and me.
b He passed the message to my brother and I.
4. Which of the following uses apostrophes correctly?
a This is James’s money.
b This is James’ money.
5. Which of the following is correct?
a The companies’ profits have increased this year.
b The companys’ profits have increased this year.
c The company’s profits have increased this year.
d The company’s profit’s have increased this year.
6. Which of the following has the correct subject and verb agreement?
a The team was victorious.
b The team were victorious.
7. Correct the misused vocabulary in the sentences below:
a The rope was pulled taught across the room.
b Your looking good!
c I was somewhat adverse to your method.
d This article is comprised of deliberate errors.
e Grammar is no longer taught as a discreet subject.
f Take a sneaky peak at our next issue!
g It maybe a good idea to check first.
h You will need to pour over the detail in the document.
i I await your reply with baited breath!
8. Which is correct?
a The cat ate it’s dinner.
b The cat ate its dinner.
1: a) This is the friend with whom I went. (This avoids placing the preposition ‘with’ at the end of the sentence.) b) Others unwittingly continue to make basic errors. (This avoids splitting the infinitive ‘to make’.) c) Do we really need to subscribe to all these grammar rules? (This avoids using the conjunction ‘but’ to open the sentence – something I’m sure you’ve noticed I do a lot!)
2: b is correct as here it is used as a verb; ‘practice’ is the noun. American English uses ‘practice’ for both.
3: a is correct as ‘me’ is the object of the sentence. ‘I’ should be used only for the subject.
4: Both are acceptable, but be prepared for flak whichever you use!
5: c is correct if referring to one company and ‘a’ if referring to more than one.
6: a is traditionally accepted as correct because ‘team’ is a collective noun, so treated as singular. However, linguists now acknowledge that treating some collective nouns as plural is acceptable.
7: a) ‘taught’ should be ‘taut’ b) ‘Your’ should be ‘You’re’ c) ‘adverse’ should be ‘averse’ d) ‘is comprised of’ should be ‘comprises’ e) ‘discreet’ should be ‘discrete’ f) ‘peak’ should be ‘peek’ g) ‘maybe’ should be ‘may be’ h) ‘pour’ should be ‘pore’ i) ‘baited’ should be ‘bated’.
8: b is correct: the apostrophe is not used to show possession in pronouns (except for ‘one’s’)3502 Views
Kathy Salaman is a former teacher who would like to see a fairer state education system, fewer wrinkles and world peace. She loves teaching English and maths, telling naughty jokes and reading geeky stuff.