The Grammar Wars: A Pacifist Writes Home

Illustration by James Field, original photo by Julia Field

The word critique annoys me when it’s used as a verb. I understand that it occupies a more neutral position on the pH scale than to criticise, and I can see why people prefer not to “provide a critique” every time. But it sends the area of my brain that quibbles with trivialities into overdrive.

It’s tempting to draw a line in the sand when discussing language: on one side would be people who could feasibly find themselves writing paragraphs similar to the one above; on the other would be everyone else. Jeremy Paxman drew his line this week as a judge for the Idler Academy’s Bad Grammar award. “People who care about grammar are regularly characterised as pedants,” he said. “I say that those who don’t care about it shouldn’t be surprised if we pay no attention to anything they say – if indeed they’re aware of what they’re trying to say.”

This confrontational rhetoric doesn’t seem very helpful, and perhaps caring about grammar isn’t all it’s cracked up to be anyway. The organisers of the Bad Grammar award, like many other self-appointed authorities on the matter, no doubt consider themselves guardians of the language, but the reality is that much of what they guard isn’t external; it’s their own biases, opinions, ego and interpretation of the ‘rules’.

When we’re scared of getting things wrong or sense that we might be opening ourselves up for criticism, most of us will pretend we don’t care either way. It’s a straightforward defence mechanism. On the other hand, when we’re comfortable in our own knowledge, we often can’t wait to show everyone how much we care. For evidence, just look at the joy people take from pointing out typos. The same people might shy away from a who/whom conversation, but a typo is something they can get on board with. They know they’re right, and they understand why. No arcane-terminology-wielding grammar obsessive will be able to show them up. This also explains why, if you ever use a double negative (probably the coolest literary device around) in public, you’ll find that everyone in earshot is a grammar expert.

The problem is that crowdsourced disdain for a much-retweeted typo does nothing to further our collective understanding of grammar; it just renders everyone a guffawing critic. Take one of the reasons Tesco was shortlisted for a Bad Grammar award: the tale of the young man who spotted the construction “most tastiest” on a Tesco carton and wrote to the store to complain. “Most tastiest” probably wasn`t a mistake. More likely, it was a slightly ill-advised rhetorical device that looked out of place in an otherwise bland text. But if it was a mistake, it had no adverse effect on the sentence. Tastiest doesn’t need a most in front of it, and in a serious publication it would, just like a cool double negative, harm the register. But my inclination is to let a carton of orange juice get away with it.

In the flurry of schadenfreude that greeted the story, not many paused to question the virtue of unsolicited criticism. Yet if we all got our quills out every time we saw a mistake, the rainforests would be gone in a year, the birds featherless and the misanthropy meter at the level of ‘War imminent’. People make mistakes every day. It’s a natural consequence of talking and writing a lot. Picking over innocuous solecisms and underwhelming attempts at fun superlatives is equivalent to laughing at someone who trips on a kerb; it elevates nobody.

It’s a natural instinct to make the most of what we know, though. I do it myself: language is the closest thing I have to a forte, so I put it to use in the most inappropriate contexts. If I’m losing an argument with my girlfriend, I’ll take advantage of anything ungrammatical she says. I might feel vindicated in the heat of the moment, but afterwards I realise that I definitely deserved a slap. Such one-upmanship is a terrible, tiresome habit. Witness it also in the comment sections underneath online articles. People’s eagerness to contradict each other, based on what little or vast knowledge of a subject they have, doesn’t just stand in the way of rational debate; it also prevents them from learning anything. This is usually the case when we fixate on the mistakes of others. Look at how many people shared the Tesco story in the belief that they were mocking a store called Tesco’s.

Last year, the media reported on a fantastic idea at an English school in Brazil. Pupils were being asked to read tweets by their favourite celebrities and look out for any errors in spelling, punctuation or grammar. It was an engaging activity that they clearly enjoyed. Unfortunately, the teachers couldn’t resist taking it a step further: the pupils were told to tweet their corrections to the celebrities. As in: “Hi @rihanna! I love your songs. My name is Carolina. I’m 11 years old. It’s not to she, it’s to her. bye bye.” This turned a fun activity into an exercise in how to be needlessly critical of people – complete strangers, no less – who never requested your feedback. And, as we see in those comment sections, people are pretty good at that naturally, without needing to be taught.

I don’t know about Rihanna, but when I joined Twitter I was not asked to sign any agreement to the effect that my tweets would all be constructed in Standard English. On the contrary, the 140-character limit encourages an inventive and playful approach to language. OK, so that doesn’t explain why Rihanna would write “she” instead of “her”. The two words feature roughly the same number of letters. But how she writes is up to she. Rihanna, in common with the people who write product information for Tesco, is not entering her work into a competition. Kids shouldn’t be taught that all mistakes and nonstandard constructions are worthy of scorn. It will only lead to another generation of adults who associate grammar inextricably with the dishing out and sucking up of criticism.

The tale from Brazil took me back to a time when David Beckham was being mocked in the media for not constructing perfect sentences in post-match interviews. Once, watching Match of the Day as a teenager with my parents, I felt compelled to defend him when my mum got in on the act. “But he’s a successful footballer…” I mumbled, trailing off like only a teenager can. “It doesn’t matter,” she said. “He should still have learned basic English grammar.” This was my mum talking so, naturally, I sighed and rolled my eyes but basically assumed she must be right.

But now I’m not sure she was. To pick on the grammar of a man who had done so well for himself based on his other talents seems churlish. I doubt he’d be leading a more fulfilling life or successful career had he spent less of his youth kicking a football around and more of it learning the rules of syntax. And I know I’d still be hopeless at football had I skipped English class for it.

I know what my mum meant, of course. Not everyone can be a Beckham or Rihanna, and it’s important for pupils to learn basic literacy skills. But the way to make this point isn’t to criticise people’s mistakes and encourage kids to do the same. That just makes grammar look like the preserve of spiteful oddballs.

There are ways of making people feel comfortable about grammar, and want to improve their use of language, without the need for any criticism. We are, it seems, in the midst of something resembling a grammar renaissance (just look at the number of articles that have been published about the Bad Grammar award), which means that nobody has to look very far for a friendly, descriptive and fun book on language. In the past few months I’ve read two that I would recommend to anyone: For Who the Bell Tolls by David Marsh and The Etymologicon by Mark Forsyth. These are positive books about language that don’t need you to pick a side.

What’s crucial, though, is to make sure that the right techniques are used in schools. What we learn when we’re young sticks with us – that’s why a generation still desperately tries to (I’m not going to stick an adverb in here for a joke; besides, splitting with brackets is far more novel) avoid splitting infinitives or ending on a preposition. These are preferences, not rules. Schoolchildren should be made aware of all the possibilities, provided with arguments for and against, and given the freedom to make up their own minds and be as creative as they like. The results would be completely unpredictable. Armed with the knowledge of how to use who and whom and primed with a variety of different opinions (on one hand, whom can sound formal and stuffy; on the other, who sounds wrong after a preposition and to lose its valid objective form altogether would be detrimental to the language), who’s to say that the next generation wouldn’t drag whom back from the brink of redundancy? It’s dying out largely because we worry about how to use it (and thus associate it with the sort of people who think awards for bad grammar are a good idea); not because there’s anything inherently unpleasant about it.

None of this is an attack on prescriptivism. Many elements of our language are worth making the effort to preserve, and there are some that we just have to knuckle down and learn how to use. Commas and apostrophes, for instance, can destroy sentences if they’re not well employed. But getting something wrong isn’t a crisis; often it’s a sign that we’ve moved out of our comfort zone. It can lead to new phrases and words being created, which is something we should be taught about at school: etymology, neologisms and all the other evolutionary elements of language that show us how we can play our own part by being creative and subversive. Creativity and grammar go hand in hand, but you would never know it from looking at GCSE test papers, which tend to be about reading boring texts and then explaining that they’re effective because they use onomatopoeias and rhetorical questions. One thing we need to learn at school is that language changes – and the more dynamically we can use it from childhood, the easier we’ll find it to keep up.

Yesterday, Hadley Freeman mentioned the importance of becoming comfortable with grammar at a young age in an article about her role as a judge for the Bad Grammar award. “I am going to speak up here in defence of good grammar,” she said. And that’s exactly what she did. What she didn’t do – or even try to do – was explain how handing out an award for bad grammar would help us move towards the communal good grammar that is vital to “the perpetuation of the human race”. Quite a strange omission from an article specificallyabout the Bad Grammar award, yet quite understandable too. The notion that caring about grammar can only manifest itself in the form of criticism is so deeply entrenched that it doesn’t even occur to many people to question it.

Society isn’t split into people who care about language and people who don’t. Most of us just aren’t sufficiently sure of ourselves. We aren’t sure whether what we learned at school still stands, or we’re so concerned by all the confusing terminology involved that we underestimate our own abilities or shy away from sharing our views. We all have insecurities, biases and blind spots. What we need is a general change in attitude towards grammar: the sooner we can make it less combative, the sooner we can all start to improve how we use language instead of getting caught up in, well, critiquing it.

Martyn Jones

About Martyn Jones

Martyn Jones is from Stockport, Cheshire (only tenuously related to the mythical Stockport, Greater Manchester). When he isn’t following the town’s football team around the country, he subedits Research Fortnight, Research Europe, and the online books & essays at Litro.

Martyn Jones is from Stockport, Cheshire (only tenuously related to the mythical Stockport, Greater Manchester). When he isn’t following the town’s football team around the country, he subedits Research Fortnight, Research Europe, and the online books & essays at Litro.

Leave a Comment