By Michael Rundell

02 June 2014 - 10:26

'[G]rammar is not about the made-up rules which prescriptivists are so fond of.' Photo (c) deepwarren, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 and adapted from the original.
'[G]rammar is not about the made-up rules which prescriptivists are so fond of.' Photo ©

deepwarren, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 and adapted from the original.

Who says we can't split infinitives? Michael Rundell, Editor-in-Chief of the Macmillan Dictionary, argues that we should expect linguistic rules to be bent and broken over time. 

Adult native speakers of a language rarely, if ever, make grammatical mistakes. This might sound like an outlandish claim, but the counter-argument – that bad grammar is endemic – rests on two common misunderstandings. The first arises because of confusion about what the category 'grammar' includes. The second relates to different interpretations of the word 'rule', and what we mean when we talk about 'the rules of a language'. We will come to this in a moment.

The reason this is worth discussing is that people in the English-speaking world (and for all I know, in other cultures too) are regularly lectured by self-appointed experts telling them how bad their grammar is. Ancient notions, long ago discredited, continue to show signs of life. A good example is that old favourite 'hopefully' when it is used to mean 'it is to be hoped that ...' ('Hopefully, we’ll get there before it’s dark'). My dog-eared copy of the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English (LDOCE) – the first edition, published in 1978 – includes a usage note at the entry for this word. The note concedes that this use is 'becoming very common', but warns that many teachers and writers regard it as incorrect. Fair enough – this was almost 40 years ago, and other dictionaries of the time carried similar health warnings. In 2014, though, this is the dominant use of 'hopefully'. Its traditional use as a manner adverb (‘I thought you might ask me to stay,' Tracey said hopefully) accounts for fewer than five per cent of all cases in contemporary corpora. Overwhelmingly, the 'modern' meaning is the one people use. And for good reason: it performs, with efficiency and economy, a useful lexical function (rather like 'hoffentlich' in German). It ceased to be an issue long ago.

Or so we thought. Yet here is the English journalist Simon Heffer, discussing hopefully in his 2010 book Strictly English:

'This tiresome usage is now so ubiquitous that those who object to it are sometimes dismissed as pedants. It remains wrong, and only a barbarous writer ... would try to pass it off as respectable prose'.

A retired businessman named Neville Gwynne published a grammar guide in 2013, wheeling out all the usual suspects, including the injunction against 'hopefully', strictures on the correct use of 'would' and 'should' (it is wrong to say 'I would not have succeeded without your help.') and dire warnings against using the gender-neutral 'their' in a sentence such as 'I think someone has left their umbrella' (he describes the last as 'abominable', despite a history going back to the 16th century and citations from a parade of well-respected writers, from Thackeray onwards). In his reading list, Gwynne gives pride of place to two grammar books published in 1898 and 1908: 'Given that both are more than a hundred years old, they can be recommended as free from even the most insignificant errors'. It is hard to imagine any other field of study in which a source is recommended precisely because it is out of date.

It would be easy to dismiss all this as harmless eccentricity but for the fact that both authors attract legions of followers, and Gwynne regularly appears in the press and on BBC radio, where his ideas are listened to with rapt attention, and rarely challenged. Meanwhile, in the U.S., Strunk and White’s similarly prescriptive Elements of Style (which dates back to 1918) continues to thrive, and its nostrums underpin many an automated grammar checker. And in a bizarre ruling on split infinitives, The Economist Style Guide gets itself into a proper mess, accepting that the prejudice against them has no sensible foundation, but still recommending that writers avoid them, on the grounds that they may cause offence: 'The ban is pointless. Unfortunately, to see it broken is so annoying to so many people that you should observe it'.

So what about the claim made in my opening sentence? A good place to start is the UK’s annual Bad Grammar Awards, which attract a good deal of media attention. Of the six nominations for the 2014 edition, four featured errors in spelling and punctuation, such as this notice in a primary school: 'We all wash are hands after playing in the sandpit'. But spelling and punctuation are not grammar. In both cases, the conventions are stable and were settled long ago. (Indeed, one of Johnson’s aims in writing his great dictionary of 1755 was to regularise English spelling, where, he said, 'there is still great uncertainty among the best criticks'.) It makes sense to conform to these well-established systems; if you don’t, you risk causing confusion. The fifth nomination was for a sentence including the phrase 'ongoing continuing professional development': poorly written, to be sure, but the problem is redundancy, not 'bad grammar'. That leaves just one nominee (supermarket chain Tesco) whose winning entry was the slogan 'Same luxury, less lorries'. That really is about grammar, though the traditional rule ('less' for uncountable nouns, 'fewer' for countables) has been losing ground for years; in the British Council’s own pedagogical grammar, 'less' is included without comment in a list of quantifiers which are used 'with both count and uncount nouns'.

To be clear: grammar is not the same as spelling and punctuation. Nor is it about word meaning: lists of common mistakes regularly include complaints about words which have acquired new meanings that some people dislike. Thus Heffer insists that 'decimate' must mean the same in English as 'decimare' did in Latin. This is a clear case of the etymological fallacy: if we followed this logic, the only correct meaning of 'hysterical' (from Latin 'hystericus', and ultimately Greek 'hystera', womb) would be its original English sense of 'suffering from discomfort in the womb'.

Above all, grammar is not about the made-up rules which prescriptivists are so fond of (and which Gwynne’s book, for example, is awash with). The mistake lies in confusing rules with norms or conventions. The use of 'should' with first-person subjects and 'would' with the rest ('I should like' ... vs 'you/they would like') was indeed a norm for many years. But conventions change over time, and the evidence of usage shows that this distinction is rarely observed now. No-one could argue that the clarity of a speaker’s message is affected by this change, so to say it is 'wrong' to break this rule is irrational. Similarly, anyone asking 'Whom did you invite to your party?' (in any but the most formal context) would invite ridicule now, even if this was once quite normal. (The use of 'whom', except in certain specific constructions, is in long-term decline.)

The real rules of grammar describe the formal structure of a language. They are, effectively, generalisations about how words fit together to create meanings, and they are identified through the study of linguistic evidence – the things that people write and say when they communicate with one another. The real rules of grammar include such things as the usual order of adjectives when there are two or more (is it 'a lovely new black dress' or a 'new black lovely dress'?); the preposition that typically follows an adjective; or the correct use of definite, indefinite and zero-articles. In the case of English, they are explained in serious, evidence-based books (or apps or websites) about grammar, whether scholarly grammars (such as Huddleston and Pullum 2012) or pedagogical grammars such as the British Council’s.

There is no doubt that these rules (the real rules) can cause problems for people learning English as a second language. But for native speakers, producing good speech or writing depends on quite subtle factors such as style, tone, register, and appropriacy to the situation. As for the rules of grammar, these are so 'hard-wired' that native speakers rarely break them.

The good news is that, thanks to new technology, we are living in a golden age for language research, and it is easy to use corpus data to test the claims of amateur pundits. More often than not, their confident assertions about what is right and wrong are unsupported by evidence, and their claims to 'authority' are based on little more than snobbery. In Through the Looking Glass, Alice talks to Humpty Dumpty about what words mean: 'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you can make words mean so many different things.' 'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be master – that's all.' The prescriptivists just want to be master, that’s all.

Michael will be presenting on this topic at a British Council seminar, live-streamed from Cardiff on Tuesday, 3 June 2014.

Read a series of posts related to this theme on the Macmillan Dictionary blog.

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