Real Grammar isn’t about the made-up or outdated “rules” which some people try to make us follow. As we said in the introduction to this new series from Macmillan Dictionary, Real Grammar is based on the evidence of language in use. In our series of Real Grammar blog posts and videos, we have discussed frequently asked questions about grammar, and provided evidence-based answers.
Thanks to all of you who tried our Real Grammar quiz. Over 13,000 people had a go – which shows how seriously our readers take the issue of good grammar. The results were interesting too. For example:
- Over 75% of you preferred who to whom in the sentence “Who(m) did you see at the coffee shop?” (Qu1)
- Over 70% were comfortable with the gender-neutral their in “I think someone has left their bag” (Q6)
- Only 18% felt that bored should only be followed by with, rather than either with or of (Q3)
- And only 10% were bothered by a sentence starting with however
This suggests a sophisticated understanding of how grammatical norms can change over time or can vary according to the social context. There is not much evidence here of people feeling bullied by old-fashioned prescriptivist rules.
So was there any point in even having a quiz, when most of those who took it opted for sensible answers which are supported by the empirical evidence of language in use? Well, the signs are that readers of our blog may be better-informed than most on questions of grammar.
Here are three bits of data which suggest that the prescriptivists continue to exert a powerful influence over people’s ideas about grammar.
A few months ago, there was a news story about a language enthusiast named Bryan Henderson who objected to the use of the phrase “is comprised of” in Wikipedia articles. So he developed a computer program to replace it, wherever it appeared, with the supposedly more acceptable “is composed of”. Writing in the Independent, the journalist Simon Kelner called Henderson “a modern-day hero”, and added:
I wish I had the dedication to remove from public gaze all incidences of “hopefully” being used incorrectly, and I’d love to have the nerve and moral courage to correct people when they use split infinitives.
What he calls the “incorrect” use of hopefully is presumably the one that almost everyone uses (see Stan’s excellent post on this), and Kelner’s objection to split infinitives has no rational basis – a point recognised by almost everyone who took our quiz. (Over 80% rejected the “unsplit” infinitive in the awkward sentence The management decided gradually to phase in flexible working hours.)
So here we have a well-known professional journalist – writing for one of the more liberal British newspapers – who adheres to prescriptivist notions which are long past their sell-by date (if they ever had any value in the first place).
My second piece of evidence appears in a question on Word Reference’s user forum, submitted by someone who is worried about putting however at the start of a sentence because
My professor strongly believes however is not to be used formally to begin a sentence, and I have heard much debate on this issue. Is it appropriate to begin a sentence with however?
The problem arises because this professor has swallowed a favourite prescriptivist “rule” and passed it on to the students without stopping to ask where the rule came from or whether it is valid – thus causing needless anxiety.
Finally, I recently watched a video from the New Yorker magazine’s “Comma Queen”, entitled “Who and whom for dummies”. Just like Grammar Girl before her, the Comma Queen explains the traditional rule about when to use whom, showing no awareness of contemporary usage or of the role of register (the formality or otherwise of the context) in determining people’s choice of relative pronoun.
What these three events have in common is that they point to people’s concern to get their grammar right – and that’s as it should be. But they also show that many misinformed ideas about grammar are passed down from generation to generation without being questioned, and that many of the people dispensing grammatical advice talk solely in terms of “right or wrong”, with little understanding of factors such as register and context. The same mindset underpins programs like Grammarly, which claim to improve your writing but mostly just “correct” things which don’t need correcting.
So where do these misguided ideas come from, and why are they still so influential? The grammarian Geoffrey Pullum lays some of the blame on Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, a standard handbook for writers which enjoys huge popularity in the US. Pullum notes “the enormous esteem in which it is held by American college graduates”, but deplores much of the advice it gives on grammar, which “ranges from limp platitudes to inconsistent nonsense”. Although, in Pullum’s view, “both authors were grammatical incompetents”, their nostrums are uncritically recycled by prescriptivists everywhere (including, in the UK, writers such as Nevile Gwynne and Simon Heffer). A good example is the widespread view that writers should avoid using passive constructions. Strunk and White have a heading “Use the active voice”, listing various examples of bad practice, and the same examples are quoted – as if from a biblical text – by other people handing out grammatical advice. A site called Ten Commandments of Writing includes this:
6) Write in the Active Voice with Strong Nouns and Verbs
and gives these examples, taken word-for-word from Strunk and White:
Wrong: There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground.
Right: Dead leaves covered the ground.
As you have probably noticed, the first sentence is not even an example of the passive. But the more serious error is seeing choices like this in terms of simple right-or-wrong – and this simplistic view of grammar pervades many of the well-known style guides for writers. As Gill Francis has pointed out on our own blog, good advice about grammar has to be far more subtle, and “embraces the notions of appropriacy, choice, and flexibility”. Knowing when it is appropriate to use whom rather than who is dependent on all these factors – rather than being determined by an oversimplified binary “rule”.
So is anything in grammar ever simply wrong? Yes, certainly. If I say “Me American old movies likes” (instead of “I like old American movies”), I am breaking several well-established rules of grammar:
- It is wrong to use the object form me as the subject of the sentence
- “I like” is correct, “I likes” is wrong, because it breaks the rule of concord (in this case, the “agreement” between the pronoun and verb form)
- The word order is wrong in two ways: in English the verb usually comes before the object (“I like movies” not “I movies like”); and there is also a rule for the order of adjectives when they are of more than one type (it should be “old American movies”, not “American old movies”)
But of course you already know this! A beginner might make these mistakes, but generally we master these basic rules of grammar at an early stage, and as I have said elsewhere, fluent speakers of English don’t usually make basic grammatical mistakes. There are more problematical areas too, such as the choice of article (the, a or zero-article) or of the normal syntax pattern following words like able or ability (it’s “the ability to do something”, not “the ability of doing something”). But, strangely, issues like these are rarely mentioned in prescriptivist guides to grammar. So the best advice is to pay no attention to usage guides which are not firmly based on the evidence of language in use.
For more posts on some of the themes we have discussed in the Real Grammar series, check out the “prescriptivism” and “realgrammar” links. And we’ll be back in September with a new series of posts so watch this space.Email this Post
I don’t usually comment on my own posts, but…Stan Carey (in his Twitter chat about Real Grammar: @StanCarey #realgrammar) mentions an edict issued by UK Minister of Justice Michael Gove, instructing his officials on good grammar. His rules include not starting a sentence with However (see my post)! But David Crystal has demolished this ridiculous “rule” in a masterly post, here.
Thanks for the Real Grammar blog and thanks for this brilliant l post on misguided prescriptivism that, as you rightly point out, goes unchallenged and is, unfortunately, kept up by English teachers and journalists alike.
I do really enjoy reading your articles so well done and I’ll be looking forward to reading them again in September.
Keep it up!