Loch Awe in spring - Photo courtesy of Neil Donald Photography






Sunday, 17 August 2014

STOP THINKING YOU NO WHATS RIGHT by Gill Stewart

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/92/Samuel_Johnson_by_Joshua_Reynolds_2.jpg
Samuel Johnson, an early champion of 'good' grammar 
(Wikicommons)

I’m a stickler for good grammar. Yes, really. A whole sentence can be ruined by a misplaced comma; a text by the absence of an apostrophe.

And this had got me to wondering WHY I am so annoyed by these things. Because they don’t actually stop me understanding the sentence or text. And language is about expressing meaning. So if the grammatical ‘error’ doesn’t affect the meaning then does it matter?

Any linguist will tell you that language is evolving all the time, and what is considering completely wrong now (either in vocabulary or grammar) may be commonplace at some time in the future. So should we worry?
You have to admit some of our grammar ‘rules’ are ridiculous. We’re told: never split an infinitive. Why not? Because the Romans didn’t. Ah, but that’s because the Romans couldn’t. It’s physically impossible to split a Latin infinitive (e.g. ire), but perfectly easy to split an English one (to go).  Try it. You can be proud to boldy go where no self-respecting writer has gone before.

There are,of course, occasions where grammar and spelling are useful for transmitting meaning. For example:  I like eating cake Jane and Sally arrived too late for high tea is somewhat confusing on first reading. I like eating cake, Jane and Sally? No, of course not. There’s a missing full stop after cake. This would be indicated in speech by a pause, so the full stop has a definite function in writing.

Which brings me on to another difference between the spoken and written word (and let's ignore the fact that you should never start a sentence with a preposition). I went there yesterday with Richard. There house was lovely. Spot the error (my computer already has!). But if you speak these sentences aloud you pronounce there (or their) exactly the same, and your listener would have no problem understanding the meaning from the context. This is a case were the difference in spelling appears to add nothing. It is inaudible in speech and we don’t miss it, yet we still insist on it in writing. Why?

I’m not saying grammar and spelling aren’t useful, but I’m beginning to wonder if they’re as important as the Grammar Police make them out to be. Is it time to start accepting that not all the rules are necessary, and that we should be making writing a little easier? Might these rules serve no purpose other than allowing well-educated, middle-class people (like me) to differentiate themselves from the hoi polio? Because, after all, we no so much more than them dont we?



15 comments:

  1. Replies
    1. Mmm. Apostophs, as they're known in this house. I have mixed feelings. I think one of the things that decided me to write the blog was an article on 'Bettys cafe' (no apostrophe) in Yorkshire. Immediately I started thinking, but why no apostrophe? Is it plural? It can't be plural or they'd change the spelling. So why why?

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    2. I can cope more easily with a missed out apostrophe as in your example but I hate it when people shove them in in front of an s - 'MOT's done here' springs to mind.,

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  2. Very thought provoking! I agree that language evolves but at the same time the rules are there for a purpose. Lyn Truss has a lovely example: "Those smelly things are my brother's" or "Those smelly things are my brothers". I think in speech you'd be able to tell but in writing you need something.

    And don't forget the difference between "Let's eat Grandma" or "Let's eat, Grandma". Punctuation saves lives, as they say!

    You've got me going....

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    1. Love those examples! I tried to think of others when writing this but when in mid rant it's hard. As I said, I'm not against correct grammar, just not sure it's worth the importance it gets.

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  3. Oh don't start me! And don't make me feel guilty about my middle class, well educated desire for grammatical standards either! I do agree that language evolves constantly and we should relax more about it - but poor punctuation (and yes, poor spelling too) CAN change the meaning. And besides, a well written sentence is so pleasing!

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    1. A well-written (or spoken) sentence is pleasing, isn't it? But what counts as well-written? I tried to explain to my sister that when one of my boys says to his friends 'Are yous coming or no?' that they are using completely correct Scots grammar. It was a battle.

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  4. Thought-provoking post, Gill! Although I prefer grammatically correct sentences, I do agree that language is constantly changing or else we'd still be in the middle ages. However, as Jennifer's examples show, punctuation is absolutely necessary at times!

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    1. Thanks Rosemary. I do notice 'bad' grammar too, but I'm trying to train myself to be so picky. Although in a work situation bad grammar and spelling definitely doesn't do you any favours and I htink I particularly notice it there.

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  5. Someon has pointed out that I have a spelling mistake (I prefer to think of it as a typo) in the blog - hoi polio rather than hoi polloi. I re-read the blog a number of times and never even noticed. I've decided not to change it but would be interested to know how many people did/do notice. Hoi polio has quite a nice ring to it...

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  6. Gosh, I was almost too afraid to comment on this post for fear I would be marked 6/10 or something for spelling and punctuation. And then I noticed an error in your post that your computer hasn't picked up and I breathed more easily. My adult children (both good spellers, and with good grammar) take me to task for using capital letters and punctuation and the correct spelling of everything in my texts. Maybe texting is what will do for grammar and punctuation some time hence ....?

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    1. I'm sure there is more than one error in the article! But hopefully I managed to get my meaning across. And yes, the influence of texting, that's a whole other topic.

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  7. I think the main problem is that while children are taught the letters of the alphabet, and upper and lower case writing, 'punctuation' seems an entirely different subject, so that the little dots, dashes and squiggles which are the marks of punctuation are considered something of an afterthought or something put there simply to irritate or annoy. They are all part and parcel of correct spelling. Long live punctuation! (Not that I always get it right, typos sometimes occur!)

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    1. I agree punctuation has its uses, but i do thing we can be over-pedantic about it. Thanks for dropping by.

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  8. Good discussion, Gill and I love the Scots grammar.

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