Tuesday, 11 December 2007

Grammar, Some More

I will not try to turn this blog into a discussion forum for things that interests me in general but people tend to talk about grammar and point out the errors they find and such things. I don't really mind too much although I prefer it done privately than in public. Anyway, I tried to write down some of my thoughts about grammar and I felt that I had the right to air them. I am a linguist, after all, so this is a professional opinion...smiles.

What is grammar? Most people think of a set of rules, or even a book with a set of rules that says what is correct and what is not, what is good language and what is bad. This is an absolutely acceptable way of viewing grammar, it is the way of seeing grammar as a tool for learning and teaching. But to accept it as a view of language we must accept that certain conventions are considered language and others not. That language can be confined within a set of rules and even an arbitrary set of rules.

Language is so much more than a set of rules or even what that set of rules allows. Language is a glorious, anarchistic, living, breathing, ever changing something that we live and breathe and think and dream with. And the great thing is that we all have it, we all know it, use it and understand it. And when you study language use among people there is no such thing as bad language, only different kinds of language.

Language can only be bad in relation to some set of conventions and I don't say that to dismiss conventions. Those conventions are important in many aspects of our lives. We live by them. You can write a good or bad business letter, or a good or bad science report. Knowing the conventions and mastering them empowers you. When you break the rules, when you use 'bad language' it is bad according to those conventions. This does not mean that you don't know language.

Language is a far more living thing. We know it and we are the experts, just by talking and being language we are the experts and it is by how we use it, it changes and comes into being. How can we say that certain language is bad when we can't even pinpoint a language? There are dialects, varieties, differences, sociolects and slang. English, for example, is a creole, a mix of Scandinavian, Frisian, French, Latin and some other languages. In certain forms of English you can say things that are not ok in others.

So what is grammar then? When studying language you see the differences and the similarities in language and you need ways of studying them and expressing them. There are recurrent patterns, similarities, things we learn in order to be able to use language. Grammar is a way of describing that. Grammar is a theory about those recurrent patterns, those regularities that enable us to understand each other.

There is a difference between that kind of grammar and the first one. This one is a descriptive grammar as opposed to a prescriptive one. The latter is or should be based on the former and they may even look the same. But there is a fundamental difference in the way we look at them. A descriptive grammar tries to capture that which don't want to be captured – language. A prescriptive grammar teaches us that which we need, to start using a new language or gives us tools to understand the one we already know.

But to think that a grammar, of either kind, can distinguish between good or bad language is really very naïve. Language is far stronger, far more powerful and democratic, far more anarchistic and chaotic to ever be captured by something that fits into a book.

Da speak nice innit?


Noah said...

I feel like my brain has been spanked.

Dove said...

I just commented on this at 360 but I would like to say I appreciate all of our conversations on grammar as I am one of these that wants the black and white rules. You are helping me to not think so rigidly about it.

I tend to think the more seamless the writing, then the more enjoyable the expression of stories, ideas, fantasies and thus the more enjoyable the reading.


Paul said...

Janice, I dislike careless spelling, and I am of the school that thinks that grammar should be learned when young and then forgotten.
Bad grammar and spelling distracts from the pleasure of reading, and if it's too bad I just won't read.
Warm hugs,

Anonymous said...

Janice -- forgive another rant.

As you probably know, I am a bit stuffy about matters of usage and grammar. I agree that language is a living, ever-changing phenomenon -- trying to nail it down (through dictionary, stylebook, or Mencken's "schoolmarm") is as futile as, well, trying to nail Jello to a tree. (What with the holidays & all, I sincerely hope you DO have Jello there).

On the other hand,the writer who communicates vividly and clearly is likely to know the rules of grammar and usage, even when (especially when) she/he is breaking them! (The same is abundantly true in music.)

While the evolution of a language cannot (and should not) be stopped (the greatest strength of English is its insatiable, promiscuous appetite for new words and phrases, whether borrowed or coined), there is great value to perpetuating standard spelling, vocabulary and other conventions. Thank goodness for Shakespeare, the King James Bible and Samuel Johnson's dictionary, which helped anchor (that is, slow the evolution of) our language. Such conservative forces allow us 21st century readers to read 18th Century tests with ease (& 16th century texts with annotations)- while Chaucer's Tales and (e.g.) Beuwulf virtually require thorough translations. Let us hope that 24th century "English"-speaking readers will be able to read Churchill, Lincoln, Naipaul, etc. without translation... thanks in part to fogies like me.


Janice said...

Dear Noah, I am sorry, far better to spank your bottom than your brain, my apologies.

Dear Dove, sorry to disappoint you by dismissing the black and white rules...smiles. Seamless is a good expression. It should be easy to read and easy to understand...that is what we should strive for.

Dear Paul, I am a little puzzled by your comment. I take it that you either disagree with me and that is quite alright or you haven't really read what I wrote.

Dear Wystan, I get the similar sensation when reading your comment. Although I agree with a lot of what you say it seems as if you disregard my view of grammar and what it is when you do this.

Thanks for commenting, I do love to hear from you all even if we don't agree...smiles



foxy said...

I'm a bit late on this having only just found it.
I can agree ( thats good of me isnt it!) with the elaboration of your original 360 argument. In my mind, whether we think we are using descriptive or prescriptive grammar, both have the same essential purpose, to capture and make accessible 'ideas' which have been formulated using 'language'. I think the distinction should be seen as artificial.
Certainly I do not feel the grammatical conventions automatically exclude 'seamless' prose, but this is only 'useful' to transfer certain types of ideas. Joyce again springs to mind.
I also dislike 'careless' spelling but see nothing wrong with deliberately modifying a spelling to achieve a predictable response in the communicant.
Oh and Wystan, a vote for one of my personal heroes. William Tyndall.
Love to all