A few weeks ago, Britain’s Daily Telegraph ran a “Good grammar test”, and the first question was:
Which of these sentences is grammatically correct?
1. Do you see who I see?
2. Do you see whom I see?
We were supposed to say that whom is correct here – so I fell at the first hurdle. But whereas my “incorrect” answer was merely based on corpus evidence, the person who set the test is in a more fortunate position. His name is Nevile Gwynne, the author of a book described as “The Ultimate Introduction to Grammar”. And according to the back cover of his book, “Mr Gwynne is never wrong”.
Gwynne’s Grammar goes after all the familiar targets: split infinitives are wrong, saying different to instead of different from is wrong, what he calls the “modern” use of hopefully is wrong. All the usual suspects, and some less familiar ones too. Like this one: don’t use the verb claim to mean “declare” or “maintain”, as in The charity claims that areas of the Amazon basin are being poisoned by toxic chemicals.
A founding principle of the Macmillan Dictionary Blog is that we don’t make statements about words without considering the evidence for how they are used in real communicative situations. So let’s test some of Gwynne’s assertions against the corpus. He insists (p.131) that claim can only correctly be used to mean “lay claim to” (which corresponds to sense 2 in the Macmillan Dictionary entry). But the data shows that around 80% of all instances of claim, from a wide range of text-types, invoke the meaning which Gwynne condemns (sense 1). The figures for hopefully are even more conclusive: it almost always means “it is to be hoped that” (sense 1), and its use as a manner adverb (‘Do you like it?’ I asked hopefully) is extremely rare. The use of whom – and the clear signs of its gradual decline – have been discussed already by both Stan and me, and the only thing to add is that there is no evidence for people using a structure like the “correct” one in Gwynne’s quiz.
Another old favourite is the use of they with a singular antecedent (If anyone wants a ticket, they should contact the theatre directly). This is described by Gwynne as “abominable”, and clearly seen as another modern aberration. But this usage has been around for centuries: Catherine Soanes, in an excellent post on the subject, mentions several well-known writers (from the 18th century onwards) who use they or their in this way, and she even has an example from as far back as 1535.
So we’re left with a problem. If the data shows that an overwhelming majority of speakers and writers fail to conform to Gwynne’s rules, there are only two possible explanations: either these speakers and writers are all wrong (or “illiterate”, as Gwynne describes people who use the incorrect preposition after words like different), or Gwynne’s rules are not fit for purpose. As with any other kind of evidence, we have to be careful not to draw hasty concusions from a small sample. But when a specific usage is widespread (or even dominant) in a corpus of billions of words from numerous different types of text, it is irrational to describe it as “wrong”.
And that’s the trouble with this book. It starts from the premise that everything in language is either right or wrong, when in reality there are often “many right ways“. Language is a social activity, and as such, it is governed not by hard and fast rules but by conventions to which members of a speech community generally conform. Two hundred years ago it may have been normal to say “To whom does this belong?” but today this sounds ridiculous. The norms have changed – that’s how language works. Samuel Johnson understood this, and for the founders of the OED, it was a basic principle that the dictionary would report the evidence of language in use, not pick and choose which words or usages it approved of.
It’s tempting to dismiss Gwynne as a harmless eccentric. The problem is that – while no professional linguist would take any of his ideas seriously – large numbers of ordinary people seem to be taken in by them. Gwynne has appeared on several BBC programmes, whose presenters treat him as an omniscient guide to contemporary usage. This is worrying. For an alternative point of view, how about this:
“There are different perspectives on grammar … and my sense is that if enough people use a word, or change how words are used in a context or alter how sentences are structured – then it’ll become the norm”.
The author of this perceptive remark is none other than the footballer Joey Barton, writing in his blog. He goes on to ask “Who sets the rules for grammar? Who is it that’s in charge?”. Clue: not people like Nevile Gwynne with his snobbish prejudices and silly made-up rules. Unlike Mr Gwynne, Joey Barton was not educated at Eton and Oxford, and does not set himself up as an expert on grammar. But it’s clear from their output that Barton has a far better understanding of how language works.Email this Post