Archive for June 6th, 2007

Today, I received an email praising my recent article about the Kamloops School District’s conversion to free software, but taking me to task for alleged grammatical errors. On the Linux.com IRC channel, suggestions about how to respond ranged from “Bite me!” to “I don’t see your name on my cheque, so why should I care?” (the response I eventually chose when I got a second email from the same person) I was more amused than peeved by the brief exchange, but as I rode the exercise bike this afternoon, I started thinking about the grammar neurosis that grips the English-speaking world.

When someone becomes obsessed with grammar, they are worrying more about rules than about effective use of language. Of all the dozens of writers I’ve known, none worried about grammar beyond the basics necessary for clarity. If clarity was best served by an ungrammatical phrase, none of them hesitated to use it.

By contrast, I can think of only two English writers who could be described as grammarians: John Dryden and Samuel Johnson, neither of whom are considered major writers today. Yet Dryden frequently took Shakespeare to task for his poor grammar. So, whatever the concern with grammar is about, it isn’t about writing well — despite what generations of school children have been told.

Of course, learning rules is easier than learning how to write. Since we don’t even have the technical vocabulary for discussing writing properly, teaching someone to write even competently is usually difficult and slow. But rules are as clearly defined as writing is not. That makes them easy to learn, and even easier to test.

People tend to obsess about grammar for the same reason that a person I know once learned all about jazz: not because they have much appreciation for the subject, but because they want an expertise in an obscure subject so that they can assert their superiority over the rest of the world. In today’s case, this sense of superiority led my correspondent to contact a complete stranger and correct them on points that were debatable at best. Even if she had been correct, that’s as rude as accosting someone on the street with your fashion advice. Anything that causes such impoliteness, I insist, is dubious for that reason alone.

In Canada, another reason for becoming a grammarian is the idea that spelling like “honour” and “centre” are somehow expressions of national pride. To me, that seems a very shaky base for any sense of cultural identity. Besides, if Shakespeare could spell his name several different ways, why should other writers care about the spelling conventions that editors use in their published work? You might as well worry about the paper or the computer monitor that your work will appear on.

However, more than anything else, the self-appointed guardians of grammar fail to understand what their subject represents. Any language is constantly evolving, so how can it have any firm set of rules? The most you can do is what linguists do, which is to provide a snapshot of how a language is used in a particular place and time. And, although that is what grammarians are doing, most of them are unaware of the fact. What they present as eternal truths are, for the most part, the rules of language as they were used by the educated elite a few decades ago. The elite has the power to make this snapshot the official version of the language, but, for all their efforts, they are unable to do more than slow the natural evolution of language. They are trying to do the impossible, and they don’t realize it.

That is not to say that grammarians do no harm. In fact, if, like me, you had ever watched the agony of first year university students as they try to put their thoughts down on paper, you would soon realize that they do a good deal of harm. Not only do the grammarians in our schools emphasize a relatively minor aspect of writing, but, in the process, they instill such a fear of making a mistake that most students are almost paralyzed when asked to express themselves.

As a result, the average graduate of our school system struggles with even the simplest bits of communication, and loses a potential sense of aesthetic pleasure. Far from educating people, the grammarians convince most of us that education is something that we can never have, and that we are hopelessly ignorant.

Then, just to make sure that we never recover, they leave us completely misdirected and focused on a meaningless goal, so that we can only stumble free of the limitations with which they have blinkered us with patience or luck.

In fact, so early and deeply is the grammar neurosis embedded in our minds that the average person, faced with what I have said here will instantly leap to the defence of grammar. They will mishear, insisting that these observations mean that I am calling for the abolition of all rules. Unable to conceive that any alternative could exist, let alone what that alternative might be, most will simple retreat into their neurosis.

Yet the alternative is very simple. Just as Nelson once said, “No officer can go very far wrong who lays his ship alongside an enemy,” no would-be writers can go very far wrong if they forget about grammar when they sit down and focus on saying what they mean. It’s as simple — and as complicated — as that. And the real tragedy is that, in the reign of the grammar police, most of us forget it.

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