Why are books about English grammar and correct usage so popular?by Stefan Collini / February 20, 2014 / Leave a comment
“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…