Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Grammarless ain't glamorous

Any etymologist will tell you that the word 'glamour' originates from a variant of 'grammar' used at one time mainly in the North, principally in Scotland. Even today, there is some glamour attached to grammar. In my society, people who don't know their grammar will do all they can to conceal that fact. The surest way you can incur their mortal anger is to correct their grammar. A mere hint to a woman that her sentence is less than felicitous is enough to earn for yourself her lifelong hatred.

I remember listening to a talk by Iris Murdoch in which she explained the connection between intelligence and language. A person's command of a language is closely linked to his intelligence. You can almost convert a person's score in a grammar test to his IQ. Why are people so sensitive when you tell them they are ungrammatical? When you question the correctness of their language, you are effectively telling them they're unintelligent and of course that is offensive.

Many ignorant people who have the audacity to teach English have made the erroneous remark that grammar is illogical. They can't be more wrong than that. English grammar is almost as logical and precise as mathematics and you stimulate your brain in about the same way whether you're reading a grammar or an advanced Maths book.

Before I continue, I should explain briefly that this blog post is all about grammar. It is sometimes necessary to give examples in order to shed light on a grammatical rule. This article would be unbearably boring if I mentioned 'predicative adjective' without illustrating it with an example: 'Angela Merkel has policies which are idiotic'. And if I talk about adverbs, it's sometimes useful to remind my readers what they are by giving an example: 'Angela Merkel's policies are incredibly idiotic.'

You will of course understand that the examples need not necessarily accord with facts and they do not necessarily reflect my opinion on anything. They are here simply to serve as an illustration of a grammatical point. If I write: 'The Holy Trinity comprises of the Father, the Son and the Blessed Virgin Mary', you should only focus on 'comprises of' as incorrect; the information (including dogma) given in the sentence is of no relevance in this article but I will try, for the sake of my readers' sensitivity, not to sound heretical.

Let's take a look at this sentence:
In vain Angela Merkel shouted and screamed till she was hoarse, but she could not convince sensible Germans that she was right.
Some of my readers will be able to spot the error instantly. Others may need some time and yet others may not see any error in it at all.

There is hardly any difference between the above test and the following mathematical test except that one is verbal and the other numerical. Both test a person's IQ. A person with a high IQ will spot the error in each of these tests instantly and those with a low IQ may insist there is no error in them.
2 + 10 ÷ 2 = 6
But the perception of the importance of these tests differs drastically in society. Most people I know, especially those who love to be identified with the 'better segment of society' (whatever that segment may be in their twisted mind) are perfectly happy to tell the whole world they are innumerate. I know of one who was miffed when I complimented her on her knowledge of the sciences and she told me long after that that she was hurt by my remark. She made it very clear to me that she was a 'humanities student' and she knew no science and maths. I actually had to apologise to her for saying that she was good at the sciences.

While most of these people in society will gladly announce to the whole world that they can see no error in the numerical test above ('I really haven't got a head for numbers. I can't do maths even if it's to save my life!'), they will not say the same of the grammar test. Society has somehow ruled that it's unglamorous to be ungrammatical and no self-respecting snob will admit that he (or more aptly, she) can spot no error in that sentence.

Grammar is as logical as mathematics and idioms quickly pass into archaism and are dropped out of use the moment they become illogical. They usually become illogical after a word in the idiom takes on a new meaning. For example, in the early 20th century, such a sentence structure would have been common but I did not expect to see it recently in one of the comments about the US Presidential candidates:
Trump is the most generous man of anyone I know.
The 'of' in that sentence meant at one time something totally different from what we know it to mean today. Now that the preposition has lost its former meaning, the logic behind the idiom is gone and that utterance falls completely, or almost completely, out of use. Grammarians were already speculating even before the Great Depression almost a hundred years ago that such a sentence would be obsolete. Common usage, which is the final arbiter of the direction grammar takes, mercilessly weeds out anything that is illogical or becomes illogical through a change in the meaning of words.

You can think of any grammatical rule or a legitimate exception to the rule and I'm sure it is not difficult to demonstrate that it is perfectly consistent with logic. Whether you should say 'He hates her more than I' or 'He hates her more than me' depends on your meaning and the expression of that meaning must accord with logic and making sense of an utterance in a logical fashion is what grammar is all about.

Apart from being almost perfectly logical, grammar can also be interesting. It is amazing how much spite and vitriol can be poured into one's condemnation of another person's use of the language as if wrong usage could be looked upon as a serious crime. And the venom that drips from the censure of purists is not in any way diminished even if the sentence may not strictly be ungrammatical or common usage is decidedly in its favour as the following sentence which can rightly be termed the purist's abomination, if the frequency and fury of its condemnation are to be the gauge, will illustrate:
Hopefully, it won't rain tomorrow and we can look forward to going to the beach and basking in the sun.
Most grammarians today are agreed that although the sentence is quite acceptable as far as usage goes, you should avoid it if you do not want to offend your readers who may include language faddists and this happens to be the kind of sentence that is most likely to arouse the rage of purists. Of all the languages in the world, English is the only one that is so linguistically versatile that you can probably say in half a million different ways anything it is that you want to say. There's no reason to write a sentence that is sure to offends some of your readers.

Some of us who were taught proper grammar as kids were so traumatised by the strictures placed on our use of the language that many of us exhibit unmistakeable symptoms of the trauma even to this day by our careful avoidance of sentence structures that would have brought the frown to the brow of our educators. Happily, there are, from my observation, very few of us who are so affected and who would pause for a few seconds before we make such a sentence even though it is now universally accepted to be perfectly grammatical:
The sketch of Milton's life is inserted in this volume as it illustrates some points that occur in the Sonnets.
I'm not one of those who would argue against the teaching of grammar in schools. On the contrary, I'm firmly of the opinion that grammar must be taught rigorously by teachers who should really be knowledgeable in the subject. We cannot have for our teachers the people I have castigated elsewhere in my blog such as Singapore's Speak Good English Movement who, as I have shown in countless posts in this blog, are so ignorant of even the basics of English grammar that they harm more than help students in the language by their sheer inability to grasp the simplest concepts in grammar.

We are not Milton who could say anything he pleased and still be revered by the literati. If we had referred to Eve as the fairest of her daughters, we would have been laughed out of any publisher's office. These great poets had it easy. One of them, if you will recall, even used a very rude four-letter word in his poem and got away with it. Most scholars say today that he didn't know what the word meant but wrote it anyway. None of us could have got away with that kind of excuse or any excuse at all.

That grammar is logical and the word 'grammar' can sometimes be replaced without any loss of meaning by the word 'logic' can be seen in these sentences which are ungrammatical because they offend against the rules of logic. If you have a good knowledge of English grammar but are unable to spot the grammatical error in each of these sentences, there can only be one reason. Either you are not addressing your mind to the sentences or you have some serious cerebral impediment that hampers your logical thought. I can think of no other explanation. Contrary to what a friend says of me, I do not make extreme observations. Everything I say is tested and backed up by evidence. I have tested my own children with these sentences and they are perfectly able to identify the errors immediately. All one needs is a clear logical mind and a basic understanding of English grammar.
Ireland, unlike the other Western nations, preserved not only its pre-Christian literature, but when Christianity came, not direct from Rome but from Britain and Gaul, that literature received a fresh impulse from the new faith. 
It would be impossible for any ruler in these circumstances, much less a ruler who was convinced of his own infallibility, to guide the destinies of an empire.
The old trade union movement is a dead horse, largely due to the incompetency of the leaders. 
Grammarians are very quick to brand those who form incorrect sentences as 'illiterate' and this is by no means the trait of only the old prescriptive grammarians. But would 'illogical' be less offensive? Illiteracy merely highlights a failure in education whereas illogicality, like stupidity, places emphasis on a person's mental deficiency which would of course be far more offensive.

It's very easy for anyone to make a careless mistake when he's writing a sentence, particularly, a long sentence. It's also very easy for listeners or readers to spot an error because he's only focussing on what is being said while the attention of the speaker or writer is usually diverted to what else he has to say and how he can fit everything in nicely and interestingly and he can ill afford the time to focus on the sentence he has said or written unless of course if he reads through what he's written which (I'm sure I'm not speaking for myself when I say this) nobody ever does. Why then is it wrong for the listener to tell the speaker that he has made an error? It's no different from telling the same speaker that his trousers are unzipped. Why should that be offensive?

But it is very offensive to many people, particularly women. While queueing up for dinner and chatting with a friend one evening when I was in uni, another friend, a woman, interrupted my conversation by observing that my use of the word 'perceptiveness' was wrong. I merely replied that the noun for 'perceive' was 'perception' but that of 'perceptive' was 'perceptiveness' but she was so outraged that she stormed off and refused to talk to me after that.

People do liken grammar to glamour and telling her she was wrong was no different in her mind from telling her she was not glamorous. It's similar to walking up to a woman and telling her that she shouldn't have worn red shoes with a blue dress or whatever it is that women with a disdainful toss of their heads would frown upon as a colour mismatch. But I didn't go out of my way to tell her she was wrong. I was merely explaining why I used the word 'perceptiveness' which she wrongly objected to. If I'm to use a fashion analogy, this would be better - she rebukes me for wearing red shoes and a blue shirt and I refer her to chapter 27 of Coco Channel's The Gentleman's Guide to Fashion which declares that such a colour combination is not just acceptable but highly desirable among the more fashionable Parisian men.

It is because of such sensitivity that correcting someone else's grammar openly is condemned by society as gross discourtesy. In polite society, nobody corrects anyone else and if I don't understand what someone is saying because his sentence is so incorrectly framed, I merely apologise that I'm a little hard of hearing and would he be so good as to repeat himself? I'm of course hopeful that he will recast his sentence and make it more grammatical and intelligible. But you can't tell him he's so ungrammatical that he can't be understood.

I have observed this rule of etiquette all my adult life and the first time I allowed myself the liberty of criticising someone else's errors was when I came into contact with the writings (including a grammar book) of Singapore's disgraceful Speak Good English Movement. I was utterly shocked that anyone who was so incredibly ignorant of even the basics of English grammar could arrogate to himself the right and authority to correct the nation's grammar. And as I have shown in many examples in the link above or here (if you don't want to scroll up), they set about their task by ruining the otherwise correct grammar of some students in Singapore who made the fatal mistake of asking them for advice on grammar. This was what led me to post articles in this blog against the Movement. As Yoda would say, when monstrous ignorance and shameless illiteracy parade themselves as grammatical correctness and elegant usage, slay them I must.

But this has painted a false image of me. Some people think I'm a nasty chap who's always waiting to pounce on people who make the smallest error in their speech or writing. There's nothing further from the truth than that. When I read through some of my own blog posts and I spot errors in them, I usually don't even bother to edit them. Why then should I correct other people's errors? You see, I have nothing against the making of mistakes. As long as the sun rises in the east, that will always happen. I'm only concerned when people do not know what the mistakes are. This is the fault of the Speak Good English Movement. It's not the occasional slip-up that people make that matters. It's the flagrant ignorance that bothers me. When the Speak Good English Movement pronounces something to be wrong when it is not (and this happens very often), that is a clear example of a mistake that stems from pure ignorance and not carelessness. That is what I detest. People can be as careless as they want to be or they can be totally ignorant - I have no quarrel with them. But the moment someone claims that a sentence is wrong, he had better be right. Right-thinking and fair-minded people must all pillory him if he's not.

The other false image is that of a highly competent English language teacher. I get numerous emails about grammar and I only have the time to read some of them. Many of them are questions that cannot be answered in one or two sentences. We now live in an era when prescriptive grammar is no longer fashionable and I can't simply dismiss a sentence as 'illiterate' without explaining the different gradations of formality that the sentence is appropriate for. There was a time when grammarians could punctuate their sentences with (these are direct quotations from old books on English usage and grammar):
...like the Eton boys of a former generation... 
The mistake is sometimes made by those who know no Latin... 
...if he had remembered dissentire and abstinere, analogy would have led him to...
But today, if you write like that, your books won't sell. They may not even get published. They assume that the readers are familiar with Latin and sometimes, Greek. Although I was made to study Latin as a boy, I'm firmly opposed to this lunacy. The only good it does is it provides a very strong foundation for the student in his study of grammatical mood and cases (there are 7 cases in Latin). Except for a few pronouns, English words no longer undergo as many inflections as they used to and so a knowledge of Latin is of minimal benefit. Unless you're the Pope who's forced to write encyclicals in Latin which are then translated into modern languages for the masses (what folly!), most people can't remember a word of what they've studied and honestly, I can't tell the difference between insulae and insularum and I'm not bothered in the least.

Some sentences were wrong at one time but are acceptable today. For example, a reader wanted to know if this sentence he constructed was really in error, as a captious friend insisted it was:
Although I do not have any statistics, I'm sure many ISIS terrorists, disguised as Syrian migrants, have sneaked into Europe.
How do I answer the reader's question? Apart from praising the reader for the perspicacity of his observation as expressed in the sentence, I am quite unable to address the grammatical concerns without explaining that it was considered incorrect up to possibly the 1990s but it's of course very hard to be precise on the year. Why it was considered incorrect requires a further paragraph. To answer just a simple question on grammar, I'll have to go into the history of the usage and even after I've explained that it's acceptable today, the reader is sure to send another email to me asking how such a straightforward sentence could possibly have been wrong in the past.

I did try at one time to answer most of the emails on grammar but I've since given it up. There are just too many emails that are sent through this blog and it's all because of the wrong perception that people have. I have said many times that I'm not a teacher and I do not aspire to be one. That they continue to write to me with questions on grammar tells me that people are just influenced by the image they have formed of me as a teacher and no amount of protestation to the contrary can alter that impression.

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