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Reflections on Real Grammar

© PHOTODISCMacmillan Dictionary’s recent series on Real Grammar included a quiz that explored people’s attitudes and preferences in English language usage. Editor-in-Chief Michael Rundell wrote that the quiz results suggest ‘a sophisticated understanding of how grammatical norms can change over time or can vary according to the social context’, and that most respondents ‘opted for sensible answers’. But what of those who didn’t?

In a Twitter chat with @MacDictionary to discuss the Real Grammar series, I said that some of the quiz results surprised me. One item was: Your sister has just come back from the coffee shop, and you want to know which friends she saw there. What do you say? The options were: Who did you see at the coffee shop? and Whom did you see at the coffee shop?, and fully 24.7% of respondents – more than 3200 out of 13,000 or so – said they would use whom.

This seems a very high proportion. Remember, it’s a hypothetical chat with one’s sister, not a formal job application. Some answers were probably an attempt at the ‘right’ answer – the more formally ‘correct’ or ‘proper’ one – rather than a realistic and honest answer. Instead of saying what they would say, some people may have said what they thought they should say. This often happens in surveys. But it might not explain all the thousands of people saying they would use whom in a casual conversation with a family member.

In another quiz item, 18% said that the phrasing decided gradually to phase in sounds more natural than decided to gradually phase in – even though their preferred syntax ambiguously suggests that the decision was gradual, not the phasing in. Linguist Laura Bailey wondered: ‘How many of those 18% are non-native learners who really do hear that option more often – from teachers?’ Given that superstitious avoidance of split-infinitives can result in awkward and confusing language, it’s a concerning possibility.

As Michael wrote, many people dispensing grammatical advice ignore such important factors as register and context. Authority figures wield real influence on how we perceive language use, and from an early age we learn about right and wrong ways to say things – which are often not what they seem. Kan me have another is unequivocally wrong, but Can I… and May I… are both correct; which one should be used depends on how formal the situation is.

We can do without simplistic and misguided presumptions about language masquerading as rules: what we need is a broader understanding of what counts as correct and appropriate to the many different contexts in which we use language.

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About the author

Stan Carey

Stan Carey is a freelance editor, proofreader and writer from the west of Ireland. Trained as a scientist and TEFL teacher, he writes about language, words, books and more on Sentence first, Macmillan Dictionary Blog and elsewhere. He tweets at @StanCarey.

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