What is grammar anyway?
Adult native speakers of a language rarely, if ever, make grammatical mistakes. This might sound like an outlandish claim, but the counter-argument — that bad grammar is endemic — rests on two common misunderstandings. The first arises because of confusion about what the category ‚grammar’ includes. The second relates to different interpretations of the word ‚rule’, and what we mean when we talk about ‚the rules of a language’. We will come to this in a moment.
The reason this is worth discussing is that people in the English-speaking world (and for all I know, in other cultures too) are regularly lectured by self-appointed experts telling them how bad their grammar is. Ancient notions, long ago discredited, continue to show signs of life.
A hopeful example of the point
A good example is that old favourite hopefully when it is used to mean ‚it is to be hoped that …’ (Hopefully, we’ll get there before it’s dark).
My copy of the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English (LDOCE) — the first edition, published in 1978 — includes a usage note at the entry for this word. The note concedes that this use is ‚becoming very common’, but warns that many teachers and writers regard it as incorrect. Fair enough — this was almost 40 years ago, and other dictionaries of the time carried similar health warnings. In 2015, though, this is the dominant use of hopefully. Its traditional use as a manner adverb (‘I thought you might ask me to stay,’ Tracey said hopefully) accounts for fewer than five per cent of all cases in contemporary corpora. Overwhelmingly, the ‚modern’ meaning is the one people use. And for good reason: it performs, with efficiency and economy, a useful lexical function (rather like hoffentlich in German).
A retired businessman named Neville Gwynne published a grammar guide. in 2013. In his reading list, Gwynne gives pride of place to two grammar books published in 1898 and 1908: ‚Given that both are more than a hundred years old, they can be recommended as free from even the most insignificant errors’. It is hard to imagine any other field of study in which a source is recommended precisely because it is out of date.
It would be easy to dismiss all this as harmless eccentricity but for the fact that this author attracts legions of followers, and Gwynne regularly appears in the press and on BBC radio, where his ideas are listened to with rapt attention, and rarely challenged.
The bad grammar awards
So what about the claim made in my opening sentence? A good place to start is the UK’s annual Bad Grammar Awards. Of the six nominations for the 2014 edition, four featured errors in spelling and punctuation, such as this notice in a primary school: ‚We all wash are hands after playing in the sandpit’. But spelling and punctuation are not grammar. In both cases, the conventions are stable and were settled long ago. (Indeed, one of Johnson’s aims in writing his great dictionary of 1755 was to regularise English spelling, where, he said, ‚there is still great uncertainty among the best criticks’.) It makes sense to conform to these well-established systems; if you don’t, you risk causing confusion. The fifth nomination was for a sentence including the phrase ‚ongoing continuing professional development’: poorly written, to be sure, but the problem is redundancy, not ‚bad grammar’. That leaves just one nominee (supermarket chain Tesco) whose winning entry was the slogan ‚Same luxury, less lorries’. That really is about grammar, though the traditional rule (less for uncountable nouns, fewer for countables) has been losing ground for years; in the British Council’s own pedagogical grammar, less is included without comment in a list of quantifiers which are used ‚with both count and uncount nouns’.
To be clear: grammar is not the same as spelling and punctuation. Nor is it about word meaning: lists of common mistakes regularly include complaints about words which have acquired new meanings that some people dislike.
Above all, grammar is not about the made-up rules which prescriptivists are so fond of (and which Gwynne’s book, for example, is awash with). The mistake lies in confusing rules with norms or conventions.
The real rules
The real rules of grammar describe the formal structure of a language. They are, effectively, generalisations about how words fit together to create meanings, and they are identified through the study of linguistic evidence — the things that people write and say when they communicate with one another.
There is no doubt that these rules (the real rules) can cause problems for people learning English as a second language. But for native speakers, producing good speech or writing depends on quite subtle factors such as style, tone, register, and appropriacy to the situation. As for the rules of grammar, these are so ‚hard-wired’ that native speakers rarely break them.
A new grammatical age
The good news is that, thanks to new technology, we are living in a golden age for language research, and it is easy to use corpus data in order to test the claims. More often than not, their confident assertions about what is right and wrong are unsupported by evidence, and their claims to ‚authority’ are based on little more than snobbery.
In Through the Looking Glass, Alice talks to Humpty Dumpty about what words mean: ‚The question is,’ said Alice, ‚whether you can make words mean so many different things.’ ‚The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‚which is to be master — that’s all.’ The prescriptivists just want to be master, that’s all.
A version of this article appeared on our British Council Voices blog in June 2014. This post was edited for the BritIt blog. The ‘Voices Magazine’ blog is an excellent resource for insights into UK Culture and the work of the British Council.