Why grammar matters and when it might not – #LinguisticsLiz

Last month, I wrote about why you don’t need to insert a comma as often as you might have been led to believe. The feedback indicated that some of our readers are slightly terrified of grammar and indeed of people who know the rules well. I wanted to reassure you that I am not some kind of grammar despot!

While I believe that the rules of our language are important and help to give written language structure and precision, I do not believe that all grammar rules are to be applied fanatically. Sometimes, a writer or editor has flexibility and can bend or ignore traditional grammar rules for the sake of style, tone of voice or emphasis.

Secondly, as our society shifts and evolves, the grammar we use is continually shifting and evolving in the same way. Grammatical behaviour changes in the same way that other areas of etiquette shift from one generation to the next.

Outdated rules

Depending on when you went to school, you may have been told that in English you must never split an infinitive; the most famous example is from Star Trek:

To boldly go where no one has gone before.”

Strictly speaking, that sentence ought to have been rendered as:

To go boldly where no one has gone before.”

If the rule had been followed here, the stress would have ended up on the wrong syllable and the drama of the statement would have been lost. The writer wanted to make a particular impact and therefore took the liberty of ignoring the grammar rule. Semantic and pragmatic considerations trumped syntax. A prescriptive approach to grammar would have forced the writer to follow the external syntactic rules rigidly to the detriment of meaning and the writer’s goal.

A descriptive approach to grammar takes account of people’s preferences in speaking and writing and accepts that some rules have become irrelevant and can be safely ignored. It analyses the language people are actually using at any given time and deduces the rules that are being followed. A study conducted of 672,000 spoken words by Lancaster University and Cambridge University Press concluded that split infinitives are now nearly three times as common in British speech as they were in the early 1990s. Once a rule is being ignored this frequently, it is no longer realistic, desirable or relevant to attempt to teach or enforce it.

The prescriptive grammar approach is becoming less fashionable despite the current national curriculum emphasising obedience to a set of grammar rules. All four of my children can explain when to use the subjunctive. In my opinion, this is an example of a rule that is almost at the end of its life cycle in standard English and may not be a valuable use of their time although it’s a nice party trick!

A descriptive approach emphasises teaching children and adults to be able to identify and use the building blocks of the language(s) they speak. I am convinced that this is still a useful and vital skill. I see it as a benefit that they understand when and where a comma is used and that they at least understand the meaning of these words:

Grammar crimes quiz

I hope, as a parent and a proofreader, I err to the side of descriptive in my approach to grammar but of course, there are some commonly repeated mistakes that do grate on my nerves. At our team meeting this week, I did a little survey of top grammar crimes and then compiled a little quiz for you all.

Can you spot the errors in these sentences:

  1. They are giving away samples for free.
  2. There were less people at the event than I expected.
  3. I was sat at my table when my phone suddenly rang.
  4. I was stood at the bus stop for half an hour.
  5. Choice of words is equally as important as grammar.
  6. Outside of work, I love to travel.

See if you can re-write these sentences correctly and bonus points if you can explain why each one is grammatically incorrect. All six are examples where I would still insist on prescribing the rules. Perhaps in 100 years, our language will have evolved again and these will have become de facto constructions. At least I won’t be here to cringe!

Tweet your answers @rinhamburgh, comment on our Facebook page or email your answers to talktous@rin-hamburgh.co.uk with the subject Grammar Crimes.

Want to read more? Try this – Breathe if you have to but don’t use a comma

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