One of the most pleasurable things about my job is that I get to have stimulating debates with my colleagues about English-related topics. Often provoked by the morning paper or last night’s Radio 4 programme, these discussions give us a more rounded knowledge of our market and feed into the work we do preparing new resources for schools.
The debate this morning centred around an article on the BBC Radio 4 website, Schools urged to get strict on grammar, about the columnist Simon Heffer and his campaign for grammatical correctness (read it here).
We’ve been here before. Lynne Truss, anyone? I am very much in the David Crystal camp of pragmatists on this issue. (You can find a link to his excellent language blog to the right of this page, as well as to a blog site written by Dan Clayton, one of our language specialist authors, whose blog on Heffer made me chuckle. ) Language gives us the ability to communicate, and as long as we can communicate effectively and appropriately in any given situation, I don’t think zero tolerance in favour of archaic and often arbitrary rules is necessary. Don’t get me wrong - I know that rules are required in order to understand the nuts and bolts of how to communicate – for example, a misplaced apostrophe can alter the meaning of a sentence. Ah, how we love our red pens in those cases. But where's the line? Take the example of the grammatically incorrect sentence given in the Simon Heffer article:
The Prime Minister has warned that spending cuts are necessary.
According to Heffer, the verb ‘to warn’ requires an object, ie someone to warn:
The Prime Minister has warned the House of Commons that spending cuts are necessary.
Does this really matter? Is the crux of the sentence about spending cuts, or is it more important for us to know that the House of Commons has been given this news? Perhaps this is the argument for getting things grammatically correct, but then surely the writer/speaker could have written it as The House of Commons has been warned that spending cuts are necessary if that was their intended message. Then again, is it crucial to know that it was the Prime Minister himself sending this warning? The critical factor here is not whether you know the rule that ‘to warn’ requires an object, but to understand what the recipient of your message will take from that message, and whether that is the point you are trying to make or not. I guess the question is whether being taught the rule enables you to do this more effectively.
Perhaps it depends more on the kind of learner you are. I wasn’t taught grammar at school. In fact, the first time I came across classifications like ‘adjective’ and ‘verb’ was at university, where my journalism lecturer was in a permanent state of horror at our grammatical ineptitude. But (hmm - isn’t there some sort of rule against using a coordinating conjunction to start a sentence?) I have always been a voracious reader, as have my parents, and perhaps I learned to communicate effectively that way. My lack of education in this area certainly hasn’t prevented me from having a career in publishing. But (oops, I did it again) what if you’re not a big reader? Where do you learn how to structure sentences effectively? I’ve repeated the word ‘effectively’ several times because that, to me, is the point to all of this. Language is a tool kit which facilitates communication (should I have said ‘tool kit that’? Does it matter? Did you understand the point I’m making regardless?) and maybe some people need to be given the tools more prescriptively than others during their education.
Heffer also makes the point in this article about what he calls ‘verbicide’. Get over it, I say. Language is, and always has been, a vacillating entity, evolving to meet the needs of the user. Does it really matter that the strict definition of ‘viable’ is ‘capable of living’ and should therefore only apply to living organisms? Do I understand what my boss is trying to tell me when he says my latest proposal isn’t viable? Of course I do – he means it isn’t feasible – but by using viable, he’s giving me the message that my idea will never have life, not just that we can’t do it for some practical reason. So, in a way, viable is the right choice of word, but he’s just extended the reach of its meaning.
These days we are increasingly in contact with people all over the world, and naturally colloquialisms and dialects are converging and merging whilst rules are being bent, shaped and outright ignored. Does that make us wrong? I don't think so. It makes language creative and exciting. And as long as your message is appropriate for its purpose and is clearly understood by the recipient, does it really matter whether you split an infinitive or use an Americanism along the way?
We are, as ever, interested to hear your points of view on this so please feel free to comment on this post or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm sure I've made lots of grammatical errors you can pick me up on...!