The UK’s conservative newspapers were thrilled last week when Michael Gove, the education minister, announced a crackdown on ‘incorrect’ English – leading the Daily Mail to rejoice that ‘Grammar is back!’. (Where has it been, one wonders?) In future, students will be penalised for ‘poor spelling, punctuation and grammar’. But who decides what is ‘correct’? In the case of spelling, this is fairly straightforward because spelling has (largely) been standardized. Punctuation is a little more tricky, but a change in punctuation can change the meaning of a sentence so it makes sense to learn how to use it effectively. But grammar is more problematical because, for many self-appointed arbiters of the language, ‘bad grammar’ is an all-purpose term which means little more than ‘anything I don’t approve of’. This can include ‘rules’ like: never use a split infinitive, don’t start a sentence with ‘and’ or end it with a preposition, don’t say ‘Can I …?’ when asking permission to do something, and don’t create verbs from nouns like task or impact. The trouble is that none of these has anything to do with good grammar.
One of the stated aims of the Queen’s English Society is that people should have ‘a good command of English’, and no-one would disagree with that. But, they continue, this means being able to ‘communicate correctly/effectively in a competitive world’. What does this mean? Correctly and effectively, either correctly or effectively, or what?
Their position is based on the popular idea that there has been ‘a decline in standards in the use of English over many years’, and this notion goes back at least to the time of Dr. Johnson. Back in the 1960s, the sociolinguist William Labov studied the language used by young African-Americans in New York City. What his work demonstrated was that this dialect was no less ‘rule-governed’ than standard American English. His research ran counter to the popular view that dialects like this were a sign of declining standards. On the contrary, Labov argued, this vibrant variety of English had its own distinctive grammatical and phonological features, but these formed a set of rules which were consistently applied.
More recently, a similar panic has arisen over the use of texting and tweeting. One Comment on the article mentioned above suggests that ‘the influence of the new media technologies (such as texting, email and twittering) have made a deadly … contribution to the widespread dilapidated state of current English’. All the evidence points in exactly the opposite direction, as shown for example in David Crystal’s recent book about texting. Just like the dialect studied by Labov, texts and tweets have their own distinctive features, and these media (with their requirement for brevity) have spawned all sorts of clever, funny and inventive new uses of language. To me, this is a greater cause for rejoicing than the news that ‘grammar is back’.Email this Post