REAL GRAMMAR.

Every once in a while I remember to check my referrer log and am rewarded by discovering an interesting blog I hadn’t been aware of; such is the case with Barrie England’s Real Grammar. England is “a former British diplomat and an occasional teacher of English to foreign students,” and he has not only a properly descriptive approach to language but a lively way of expressing it; from this post: “Don’t be fooled by these people [The Academy of Contemporary English]. They are not the experts they claim to be. Left to them, English would become a bland and ineffective tool for expressing thought and emotion instead of the vigorous and infinitely varied medium it always has been.” His FAQ begins:

1. What is grammar?
A question perhaps not asked as frequently as it should be. Grammar is all sorts of things to all sorts of people, but if you don’t define it before you start discussing it, then you can expect trouble. Linguists use it to describe how a language allows smaller units of meaning to make words (morphology) and how it allows words to make sentences (syntax). Adult native speakers use their language grammatically most of the time. Many people think that a sentence such as ‘We was robbed’ is ungrammatical because, they say (if they know the relevant grammatical terms), the first person plural of the past tense of ‘be’ is ‘was’. They’re right, but only up to a point. That is certainly the case in the variety of the language called Standard English. It is not the case in some non-standard dialects where we find that ‘was’ is used for all persons and numbers.

And the section “What is correct English?” concludes: “The failure to appreciate that English comes in so many varieties, and can be used for so many different purposes, is at the heart of much unnecessary argument about the language. We should extol, and not malign, its diversity.” Well said, and I’m glad that some foreign students are being taught by someone as sensible as that.

Comments

  1. A more general claim, that I consider equally valid, can be made from one of England’s statements by replacing the word “English” by “language”, and changing another word:

    The failure to appreciate that language comes in so many varieties, and can be used for so many different purposes, is at the heart of much unnecessary argument about … language. We should extol, and not translate, its diversity.

    By “equally valid” I mean that each claim is reasonable only if the other is – provided, of course, that one does not believe that some languages are more equal than others.

  2. Indeed, subject to the qualification that a language spoken by only a few thousand is unlikely to come in so many varieties and be used for so many different purposes as a language such as English spoken by many millions.

  3. dearieme says:

    “We should extol, and not malign, its diversity.” Yeah, yeah, and which dialect of English do you suppose he insisted that his children speak? And did he never “correct” their grammar? Yeah, yeah.

  4. Language, what do you mean by your referrer log? Is it a thing that shows when other people have mentioned your blog in their blogs?

  5. Crock a load a what! Grammar doesn’t need to be defined, it is. Like so many new age gurus pedalling their potentiality potions, the language lackeys wouldn’t know a rule from a Reiki session.

  6. Uh, shouldn’t that be “the first person plural of the past tense of ‘be’ is ‘were’“?

  7. Um, wasn’t it one of the core convictions of the Tucson shooter, that forcing one to communicate in grammatically correct forms violates one’s free speech rights, and that generally grammar has been invented to enslave people / to take away their freedom? Ain’t an expert on this stuff myself, but couldn’t help thinking about some parallels…

  8. As an adult language learner, I discovered something that I missed both as a native speaker and a child learner–the appropriate form of discourse depends on the situation. The type of language used in a newspaper article or by a television announcer is not appropriate in a personal discussion and vice versa. The concept that there is a single grammar that rules all uses of a language is misleading.
    Native speakers pick these subtleties up without thinking about them, as we do many points of what is called grammar.

  9. Language, what do you mean by your referrer log?
    See that thing down at the very bottom of the page, a square with a sort of electrified blue globe in it? Click on it and you’ll find all sorts of interesting information (just scroll down past the blaring UPGRADE NOW!!! box).

  10. @Yuval. Thank you. Now corrected.

  11. @ dearieme. I don’t recall insisiting on my children speaking any particular variety of English, but inevitably they speak the variety that I speak and that they found around them at their schools. That variety is, more or less, Standard English.
    Please, please, please, do not misunderstand me. The ability to speak and write Standard English is hugely important for those who wish to understand and be understood beyond their immediate language communities. But there is no inconsistency between stating that and claiming equal linguistic legitimacy for all varieties of the language. I stress ‘linguistic’ legitimacy. As David Crystal says in Rediscover Grammar:
    ‘I take the view that all varieties of the language have an intrinsic value and interest, while recognising that one of these varieties – formal standard English – carries more social prestige and has more universal standing than any other.’

  12. Either that, or the way I was taught fifty years ago is the one and only way, and if anything’s changed it should be hauled back in on its fanny and strung to a post until it’s had a chance to think about what it’s done.

  13. Interesting. Thanks, Lang.

  14. This discussion finally moved me to read Dmitry Bykov’s Orthography, a novel based on a fictional premise that after the October Revolution, the victorious bolsheviks outlawed not just the Cyrillic letter “Yat”. In the book, they went one step further and banned all the rules of spelling and punctuation to liberate the semi-literate masses, thus making all the linguists, and then also the authors, superfluous.
    Got through the first half of the book, so far so good ;) If the readership here thinks that this is on-topic, I’d be so glad to see a discussion!

  15. dearieme says:

    “they speak the variety that I speak and that they found around them at their schools. That variety is, more or less, Standard English.” Fair enough: but what if it had not been?

  16. It would have been unfortunate.

  17. I’d be so glad to see a discussion!
    So would I! I wrote about the book here, here, and briefly here. I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts on it.

  18. Thanks Language, very interesting links. Nothing in the context of the present topic though (“abolish the linguistic standards & change the Universe!”).
    Anyway I thought to weight in on the arcane topics of pustoglots, aquilegs, and Nesein in the most recent of these three fossilized discussions, but I don’t think that it is still open for comments ;)

  19. I just reopened it.

  20. maidhc: “As an adult language learner, I discovered something that I missed both as a native speaker and a child learner–the appropriate form of discourse depends on the situation.”
    And I’m not sure even many adult native speakers fully “get” the implications of this. They may use the appropriate forms, but persist neverthless in considering only the formal constructs as correct, and the informal ones as used-but-wrong.
    I don’t know what it is about English culture/history that has fostered this, as opposed to, say, Finnish or Norwegian, where ‘book’ and ‘spoken’ forms exist as objectively different but equally valid variants.

  21. You can blame it on British class structure and in particular boys’ public schools in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

  22. I stress ‘linguistic’ legitimacy.
    Which I assume means that Standard and informal English are equally legitimate in a technical, linguistic, sense, rather than in their places in general usage.
    ‘I take the view that all varieties of the language have an intrinsic value and interest, while recognising that one of these varieties – formal standard English – carries more social prestige and has more universal standing than any other.’
    Wasn’t it prejorative to use the term “social prestige” rather than pointing out what seems to be a broad consensus – that standard English is the norm in formal contexts, like the majority of the media, and business – in grammar and spelling, at least.

  23. Huh? That’s what “social prestige” means. There’s nothing pejorative about it.

  24. J. W. Brewer says:

    But presumably even in language communities where no one’s spoken language is the “book” language, there are higher-prestige and lower-prestige varieties of spoken language, and certain barriers to economic success, social mobility, etc. associated with inability to speak (whether natively or via code-switching) the prestige variety. But in a language community where the book language (at least in terms of syntax, lexicon, etc. – you still have to deal with pronunciation) closely approximates the prestige variety of the spoken language, that, it seems, might make it easier for those whose native variety is non-prestige to acquire via reading a lot of what they need to know to learn how to code-switch into the prestige spoken variety.

  25. "Cytheria Newton" says:

    “Well said, and I’m glad that some foreign students are being taught by someone as sensible as that.”
    It’s easy for a native speaker of English to say that, but as a teacher myself, I know that it’s hard enough for many people of certain languages to grasp English language concepts already, and many dread the ubiquitous exceptions to every rule, so further telling them that anything goes, because there are many varieties of English.

  26. He’s not telling them “anything goes,” he’s explaining that some forms are socially preferred and need to be learned for that reason rather than saying “these forms are correct and everything else is incorrect/bad/illiterate.”

  27. michael farris says:

    hat, I think youve beeen pwned, unless I’m wrong you’ve commented on a spammer’s comment.
    See where your ‘anything goes’ philosophy gets you?

  28. Aiieee! You’re so right. I’ll remove the spam URL and be more vigilant in future.

  29. I put her “name” in quotes while I was at it. Grr, spammers.

  30. “She” wasn’t a spambot, though, was she?
    Do people actually bother reading the comments just to leave spam links? Surely the economies of spamming wouldn’t justify it… unless the spammer is otherwise interested in the eclectic mix here anyway, and decided to reward you thus…
    Or has spambot technology advanced far enough to leave germane, coherent mild dissent?

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