We’re so quick to say that someone “doesn’t know their grammar” that it might be surprising how many of us aren’t entirely sure just what “grammar” is. This would include me. I just had to look it up (again). Here is what Bryan A. Garner, author of the “Grammar and Usage” chapter of the Chicago Manual of Style, has to say:
Grammar defined. Grammar consists of the rules governing how words are put together into sentences. These rules, which native speakers of a language learn largely by osmosis, govern most constructions in a given language. The small minority of constructions that lie outside these rules fall mostly into the category of idiom and usage.
In the very next paragraph he notes that “there are many schools of grammatical thought,” that “grammatical theories have been in great flux in recent years,” and that “the more we learn the less we seem to know.”
Not to worry about all this flux and multiplicity, at least not too much. A couple of things to keep in mind, however, when someone accuses you or not knowing your grammar or when, gods forbid, you are tempted to accuse someone else: (1) spelling and punctuation are not grammar, and (2) some of the rules you know are bogus.
If you’re not sure which of the rules you know are bogus — well, I just Googled bogus grammar rules (without quote marks) and got 338,000 hits. Bogus rules are the ones we generally don’t learn by osmosis. They are stuffed down our throats by those in authority, often teachers or parents.
At the top of almost everybody’s list are the injunctions against splitting an infinitive and ending a sentence with a preposition. They’ve both been roundly debunked, but I still get asked about one or the other from time to time so I’m pretty sure they’re not dead yet. Plenty of writers and even editors still get anxious when a “to” is split from its verb or a preposition bumps up against a period/full stop.
The general purpose of bogus rules is not to help one write more clearly; it’s to separate those who know them from those who don’t. As literacy spread and anyone could learn to read and write, the excruciatingly well educated upper classes confronted a dilemma: how in heaven’s name can we tell US from THEM? Hence the rules — about language, etiquette, and various other things.
Note, however, that the uppermost class can generally get away with anything, so the ones who follow and strive to enforce the bogus rules are often those a notch or two below in the pecking order. That’s how they demonstrate their loyalty to those at the top. Watch out for them.
5 thoughts on “G Is for Grammar”
I’m a stickler for grammar and punctuation, but contrary to popular belief, I’m not the grammar police. Although I very much appreciate if someone points out a typo or outright error in my writing, I do not do this to others unless asked. And I NEVER point out errors in someone’s writing publicly or try to make them feel bad.
I believe grammar and punctuation are tools as useful as words in communication and in eliminating ambiguity and misinterpretation.
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What an interesting article; I never considered the idea of contentious grammatical rules being a way to entrench a them vs us attitude. I guess I can now be a little less worried about violating certain supposed rules.
Have you ever seen the musical play or movie My Fair Lady? (Or Pygmalion, the play it was based on?) It’s all about how the way one speaks places one in the class structure, and how a professor teaches a young working-class woman to pass as a lady. Some of the writing rules serve the same purpose: to enable one to pass muster with the gatekeepers. It’s always wise to keep your audience in mind, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time either. If you use “whom” correctly, some readers will consider you one of the elite, and others will think you’re stilted and stuck up. 🙂
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The one and only time I watched the Rex Harrison & Audrey Hepburn film was before I even reached puberty so much of it went over my head. It was mostly just the musical numbers that really held my attention. But now that you’ve brought it up it in relation to this topic, I’m going to make a point of re-watching My Fair Lady so I can view it in a new light. Thank you. 😉
Listen particularly to the song “Why Can’t the English Teach Their Children How to Speak.” That’s it in a nutshell. 🙂