An article written by Tom Chivers for The Telegraph, a London-based newspaper, has recently gone viral—partially, no doubt, because of Mr. Chivers’ eye-catching title: “Are ‘grammar Nazis’ ruining the English language?” His subtitle reads, “Split infinitives make them shudder and they’d never end a sentence with a preposition. But linguist Geoffrey Pullum has a message for all grammar pedants: you’re wrong.”
The article has been quoted and shared on several language websites I follow and has been linked on the linguistics and grammar subreddits on Reddit.com. The responses to the article have been quite predictable: readers are all ready to take up their metaphorical swords and shields and go to war, whether they stand for grammar by the book or an ever-evolving language.
As you read in my first post on this blog, I would much rather camp out in the middle or, better yet, not be on the battlefield at all, drawing up peace terms in an undisclosed neutral location. Although Mr. Chivers makes a clear case against “grammar Nazis” in his title, I think his interview with Professor Pullum reveals a less combative point of view I can stand behind.
Professor Geoffrey Pullum is one of the most famous linguists in the world. He co-authored The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language in 2002, a new English grammar book for the twenty-first century. He also regularly contributes to Language Log, a very popular linguistics blog. He’s currently the Professor of General Linguistics at the University of Edinburgh. Basically, he knows his stuff.
Professor Pullum vehemently argues for descriptive grammar. He makes several key points I would like to discuss.
Point One: Standard English is necessary for all speakers of the language to communicate effectively.
“’It’s entirely to the benefit of all of us that newspapers’ editorials are written in Standard English, and that we can all speak it in situations such as business and air traffic control, and understand each other.’”
Agreed. Standard English is important to preserve because it gives us all common ground. Mr. Chivers adds that Standard English is vital to success in the business world, and children should learn it as a key to a better life. While that may be important, the bigger issue here lies in the idea of a standard language. Different dialects of English develop everywhere, from urban Detroit to the Caribbean to Scotland to Australia to India—they aren’t all the same. If we don’t teach Standard English to children (as opposed to their regional dialect), we are limiting them to their own geographical location and diminishing their potential for successful interaction with other parts of the world. If English truly is a lingua franca (which, of course, is up for debate), a strong grasp of how it works and how to use it to effectively communicate ideas is absolutely necessary.
Point Two: Grammatical rules come down to personal preference, and you shouldn’t try to impose your preferences on others.
“I ask him if he has any personal dislikes, which aren’t ‘wrong’ but which annoy him. ‘I have bugbears. But I like to think I have a healthy attitude towards them: they’re my bugbears, so I regulate my own usage, not yours. For example, I’ve always disliked the term “people of colour”. I refused to use it even when I was a graduate dean working on affirmative action in the Eighties in California.’ The key, he says, is to realise that your preferences—using ‘fewer’ instead of ‘less’ when referring to plural objects, for instance—are just preferences, and claiming that they’re ‘wrong’ is false.”
This sounds nice in theory, but it seems pretty impractical to me. Everyone who uses the English language imposes preferences on others simply by using it. If I say “fewer cookies” rather than “less cookies,” I’m making it quite obvious what I prefer. It’s hard for me not to condemn “less cookies” as wrong, because—well, according to everything I know about grammar, it’s wrong. The structure of English, in this case, already makes perfect sense and there isn’t a good reason to change it, in my opinion. When speaking casually with friends, this isn’t something I would bring up, because I agree with Professor Pullum that it’s rude. However, if a friend handed me a formal letter for her boss to edit, I would most certainly circle this mistake—If someone asks me to edit something, they want my preferences, and my preferences tend to follow the book quite closely.
Point Three: English is not the best language on the planet.
“English is the most important language on the planet, he says – not because it’s better but because, by historical accident, it happens to have spread around the globe. ‘It’s not that English has won out because of its virtue,’ he says. ‘In some ways, English is highly unsuited to its role; it has 200 irregular verbs, where Swahili, for example, has none. It would have been wonderful to have Swahili as a global language, but it didn’t happen.’”
Agreed! English is incredibly difficult for a non-native speaker to learn, and different cultural nuances make it even more difficult. I would never call English the best language, or even the most beautiful. However, English has been used (and will continue to be used) to produce some of the most historically significant documents ever written, some of the most beautiful poetry ever written, and some of the most influential literature ever written. I agree with Professor Pullum: English may not be the most ideal global language, but it has become the most important. That’s why learning about how it works and how it affects us is so important to me.
Point Four: All dialects of English are just as valid and significant as any other.
“‘Other, non-standard English dialects aren’t bad or inferior. Saying that African American vernacular English is Standard English with ignorant mistakes is as stupid as thinking that Dutch is just standard Berlin German with ignorant mistakes.’”
I’m a little torn on this one, but that goes back to my philosophy about the different functions of language. Speaking is geared towards an immediate effect, and different dialects are perfectly acceptable in that case. Many people have much less control over how they speak versus how they write. So, I agree with Professor Pullum on half of his point: non-standard dialects aren’t bad, but if they carry over into how a person formally writes, I see a problem arise. I’m in no place to condemn any dialect (I live in the American South, after all), but I still hold strong to the idea that all speakers of English can write clearly and effectively on paper.
Point Five: There is a middle ground between strictly following the rules and throwing the rules out the window.
“Whenever linguists point out that the rules of language can’t be what the ‘grammar Nazis’ think they are, people claim that they’re saying anything goes. Not at all, says Pullum. ‘We grammarians who study the English language are not all bow-tie-wearing martinets, but we’re also not flaming liberals who think everything should be allowed. There’s a sensible middle ground where you decide what the rules of Standard English are, on the basis of close study of the way that native speakers use the language.’”
I mostly agree. I like to think I stand in the middle and try to look at language objectively. However, I don’t think I’m in any position to make my own rules. So, if I get confused, I’m much more likely to consult a grammar book than carve my own path and decide for myself what to do.
I like the way Professor Pullum thinks. He casts a different light on the world of grammar, which is usually shadowed by knuckle-slappers and tsk-tsk-ers. However, I’m not quite ready to follow him into the void. Without the grammar rules I know and love, I would be out of a job.
You can learn more about Professor Pullum on his website.