Why are books about English grammar and correct usage so popular?by Stefan Collini / February 20, 2014 / Leave a comment
Published in February 2014 issue of Prospect Magazine
“The use of English appeals because it is a matter on which we are all experts, thus making it the perfect topic for interminable dinner table discussion” (Image © Nic McPhee)
Plain Words: A Guide to the Use of English
by Ernest Gowers and Rebecca Gowers (Particular, £14.99)
For Who the Bell Tolls
by David Marsh (Faber, £12.99)
English for the Natives
by Harry Ritchie (Hodder, £14.99)
What is wrong with the following sentence? “There is no longer any public appetite for books about grammar and correct usage since it is now widely accepted that the criteria of ‘good English’ is merely an attempt to impose the preferences of a dominant elite on everyone else.” I expect you spotted the mistake immediately—namely, that the sentence is untrue. In fact, it might be said to be false in more ways than one. It is, for example, not the case that English grammar simply consists of generalizing the habits of the currently most powerful social group. Its evolution is a complex story in which some grammatical features—or, sometimes, supposed features—from several root languages have been carried over in modified form, while the usage of groups defined by various indicators (region, class, profession, and so on) have also left their mark on what, at any one time, has come to be regarded as “Standard English.” But the sentence is false in a more immediately obvious way: far from there being any decline in the public appetite for books on this subject, that appetite seems to be insatiable.
This is puzzling on several levels. It might be thought that grammar was just the kind of old-fashioned, school-related topic that publishers would regard as unsaleable. After all, bookshops are hardly crammed out with popular books on the multiplication tables and other things supposedly learned in the now not so recent past. But the continued success of books on language is also surprising for the reason pointed to in my opening sentences. A combination of developments in linguistic theory together with the (uneven) impact of the democratic and egalitarian temper of our times has encouraged a much less prescriptive view of language use, which now tends to be seen as an ever-changing and plural set of communicative practices.
And yet, readers still seem to hanker after sources of authority, rulings about the correct use of, say, accusative pronouns as though they were the linguistic equivalent of instructions on how to address a dowager duchess or where to place the fish knives. At the same time—and in only apparent contradiction to this hankering—the use of English appeals because it is a matter on which we are all experts, thus making it the perfect topic for interminable dinner table discussion. Everyone can, with conviction and even a kind of authority, declare “that isn’t what the word means” or “you can’t say it like that in English,” putting language up there with politics and football as the breeding ground of limitless opinionated dispute.
For some time now, it has been customary to label those who write about grammar and usage as either prescriptivists or descriptivists. The former think there are “right” and “wrong” ways to say or write, while the latter claim that we can only record how people actually use language, since any widespread successful usage is, ipso facto, “right.” But as soon as we probe a little further, these two categories start to dissolve. In fact, there are two complementary pleasures to be had from reading contributions to this ever-popular genre. The first is that of watching the most beady-eyed prescriptivist waving through usages that would have put their prescriptivist ancestors in intensive care with advanced apoplexy. The other is the sight of the most laid-back descriptivists casually laying down a range of arbitrary diktats and prohibitions. And this is not accidental or just a matter of personal weakness. In reality, neither of these positions is sustainable in its pure form. Those who think anything goes and those who think that that means it goes to the dogs turn out to be not so far apart after all.
The truth is, not to put too fine a point on it, that every prescriptivist is screwed by history. They can’t avoid knowing that, on so many of the hot topics of grammar and meaning, what used to be right is now wrong and vice versa. But the descriptivists are caught in their own cleft stick without a paddle, too. In theory, their position might be summed up as, “If folks say it like that, then that’s how folks say it.” But just as no one is in practice a thorough-going relativist about knowledge or morals, however committed they may be to relativism as a theoretical position, so no descriptivist can, for example, stand by and watch foreigners mangling the language without invoking the category of “mistake.” In fact, the teaching of English as a foreign language is an interesting testing ground for all the general ideas put forward in these books. In that setting, there certainly are “rules” and there are “right” (and therefore “wrong”) ways. For TEFL teachers, saying “more tastier” can’t just be a matter of taste.
One of the most venerable (and, in some quarters, venerated) guides to good written usage is Ernest Gowers’s Plain Words, first published in 1948 and then in complete form in 1954. Gowers, a senior civil servant, had been commissioned to provide a guide to help officials write better English. Sisyphus would have had the sense to turn the job down, but Gowers produced a wonderfully brisk and sensible set of recommendations, written with the confidence of a man of his class and time. Over the past few decades, two unhappy attempts were made to “update” Gowers, resulting in ungainly blends of old examples and new dogmas.
Now, Rebecca Gowers, his granddaughter and a successful freelance writer, has been charged with the impossible task of producing a version which is true to the spirit of the original but adapted to the needs of the 21st century. She discharges this task with wit and delicacy; hers is an infinitely better version than the two earlier revisions. But the result is still an awkward hybrid, the peppery tone of the 1940s mandarin disciplined by a wholly contemporary alertness to gender-discriminatory pronouns. Rebecca Gowers tells us that, among many changes to the original, she has removed about a hundred semi-colons. The pitfalls of “updating” could not be more starkly revealed. This is Plain Words stripped of anything that might frighten the horses; use it if you want to know what a thoughtful contemporary writer thinks might make Gowers more palatable to modern tastes, but consult the unexpurgated original if you want a coherent blend of tone and precept (as well as excellent illustrations of how to use the semi-colon).
One small change since Gowers’s time is the increasing use of “responsible for” to mean “to be charged with responsibility for/have an obligation to deal with,” giving rise to such ambiguous sentences as “The Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police is responsible for all crime in the London area.” In this sense, as Production Editor, David Marsh is the man responsible for the typos in the Guardian, yet even so he seems to have time on his hands (and blood, some might say). Enough time to concoct For Who the Bell Tolls: One Man’s Quest for Grammatical Perfection, an entertaining but occasionally irritating pot-pourri of rulings about various aspects of language use. Many of these are perfectly sensible (it’s fine to use “anticipate” to mean “expect,” as in “they didn’t anticipate any trouble”), some are debatable (“schizophrenic” should only be used in the strict medical sense, never metaphorically), a few are just prejudices (hyphens “clutter up text… and look old-fashioned,” though he uses one in “old-fashioned” and does, a little grudgingly, acknowledge that there is a difference between “a man eating squid” and “a maneating squid”).
But they are all how the style tsar of the Guardian rules that things must be—which must make it the dream job for anyone who combines progressive politics with a marked hostility to capital letters (incidentally, it has become common to use “tsar” in this way, even though one might think that the buried historical allusion suggests that any such role is not going to end well…). Marsh is good on the peculiar idiom of news reporting, and especially on the distinctive art form that is the newspaper headline; you have to forgive a lot to anyone who, for a story about funding cuts to some Essex libraries, would use the headline “Book lack in Ongar.”
But even Marsh slips at times. For example, he declares that “God save the Queen” is not an example of the subjunctive, “but an appeal to God to save the Queen, rather than an assertion that God is saving her, and therefore no more subjunctive than the Beatles singing ‘please please me.’” But, first, no one could ever claim that the subjunctive indicated that an act was being performed, and second, in so far as the Beatles’s title can be parsed, its verb is surely an imperative. As every schoolboy once knew, “God save the Queen” is the contracted form of “Let (or may) God save the Queen,” which is precisely an example of the subjunctive. If, improbably, it were thought to be on a par with the Beatles’s plea it would need a comma after “God” to turn it into an imperative. (Commas can be a helpful indication of addressee; the announcement “it’s time to eat, grandma” means something alarmingly different without the comma.) Using the tools of Marsh’s own trade against him, we might represent this as “Style Tsar’s God Plea in Royal Song Row.”
Judging by English for the Natives, Harry Ritchie has recently been reading a lot of books about language—really hard books about how it functions, how we acquire it, what its relation to “reality” is. On the basis of this extensive, if eclectic, learning he comes up with all kinds of engaging propositions (“the further from the equator, the more colour words in the language”), some of them pure Heath Robinson bits of homemade philosophy. He seems, for example, to believe that Saussure’s theory of signs shows that all judgements are subjective. He also seems to believe there is a consistent position called “relativism” and that it shows that “we have no innate attributes.” As I mentioned, writing about language somehow leads people to this high pitch of opinionatedness: these views all come in the chapter on adjectives.
Ritchie asserts (the default verb in books about language) that there cannot be such a thing as “a common mistake” in language use: if a lot of people say it, then it’s part of the language. Which is very many old bollocks (confusion between number and amount is a particularly common kind of mistake). People looking for discrete relationships may be disinterested in expatriots, and as they pour over the personals they ignore those that infer a record of pedalling drugs, which they think likely to mitigate against developing an ongoing relationship. You see that kind of thing all the time, but it doesn’t mean that it is part of Standard English or any other recognised dialect. Still, if George W Bush can misunderestimate some things and Sarah Palin can refudiate others, then, like, whatever.
Like most writers on this topic, Ritchie from time to time interrupts his sane, wellinformed reflections with assertions that are at best wildly exaggerated and at worst simply bonkers. The use of the pronoun “one” for an impersonal subject lights the fire in his rocket in this way. He asserts—though it is manifestly false—that the pronoun has all but died out, and adds: “Doubtless there are still pockets of Knightsbridge or the odd Oxbridge college where one can talk about oneself as one without one coming across as barkingly affected, but out in the real world it has proved increasingly unacceptable, an upper-class quirk to be met with distrust or derision, the grammatical equivalent of fox hunting or wearing bright-red corduroy trousers.” This may win a prize in the “how many stereotypes and social prejudices can you cram into a single sentence” competition, but one hardly has to be barkingly posh to find the pronoun quite properly and inoffensively used all over the place.
It’s remarkable how often the everythingis- valid school attempt to buttress their claim about some non-standard usage by pointing out that it can be found in Shakespeare or a Rolling Stones lyric, or—in another tactic—that it was perfectly normal in the most rural parts of late 19th-century Cumberland. But such instances tell us nothing relevant about contemporary Standard English. “‘Youse told him to do it hisself ’—that’s a completely valid, entirely grammatical statement with no mistakes in it, no corruption or laziness,” writes Ritchie. It is indeed entirely grammatical as a sentence within a particular dialect.
The issue, of course, is the setting within which it is being used. If the setting requires Standard English, then there’s nothing elitist or inconsistent in “correcting” it to “You told him to do it himself” (just as Ritchie and his editors have been at pains to make sure that his own book conforms to such usage). “Standard English” is neither arbitrary nor eternal: it is the set of conventions that embraces almost all that native speakers in Britain recognise as acceptable for public or formal purposes, especially in writing, though ceaseless historical change will of course always mean that there are some contested items around the fringes. There is no point in trying to pretend—in a belligerent, sipping-me-tea-from-me-saucer kind of way—that because Standard English can also be classed as dialect, this means that it is simply “one dialect among others.” There is, beyond this, the quite separate question of the globalisation of English— not just as a first language but, increasingly, as a variety of different international patois. What is “standard” in such settings will vary, but these books are concerned with the debates about what counts as “Standard English” in Britain, now.
By the way, if you thought that the answer to my opening question is that “criteria” cannot take a singular form of the verb, then you are probably over 30—and the data on trends in usage is against youse.
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