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?