There’s grammar and there’s grammar

17 May 2013

Matt Haig has a post over at Booktrust on grammar snobbery. I like it, but I don’t agree with all of it, so I thought I’d float some ideas here.

Basically, he’s right: grammar snobbery is obnoxious, and yes, it is absolutely unforgivable to take the piss out of someone for misplacing an apostrophe. Unless I misplace an apostrophe. If you catch me doing that, hit me with something. I know where apostrophes are supposed to go, and where they probably don’t belong. If you see me saying “it’s” when it’s “its”, feel free to throw eggs. I’m being lazy.

It’s also indisputable that a lot of grammar is basically made up. The prohibition on split infinitives is an invented one, an artifact of various political and cultural agendas. As I’ve observed elsewhere [*], that doesn’t really matter any more because people get in a tizzy about it, so a split infinitive stops the eye of many readers. Being right won’t save you if everyone gets distracted from what you want them to be thinking about to argue the lost cause of “to gently clasp”.

Having said that, there’s a middle path between being ridiculous about grammar – the somewhat obsessive attention given by some copy editors to the confected rule about “which” and “that” in restrictive clauses is a perfect example: Dickens does it, so does Melville, and if Fowler was the cheerleader for this iron law, Gowers completely undermined him, observing that it was the practice neither of the majority nor the best of writers [*] – and letting it slide entirely. Matt makes reference to Shakespeare, but I’ve always found Shakespeare’s grammar to be remarkably solid. He plays with word order to derive meter and creates words, but his English is the most inflected you’re likely to encounter in the real world, hinting at the German parts of our heritage with “thou” (“du”) and second person singular endings in “-st” and so on. He has a foundation of predictability on which to build towers of art.

And that’s the point: an awareness of grammar is handy. You don’t have to stick to it, but having the concepts in your head helps when you’re looking for equivalent patterns in other languages, and it allows you to depart confidently from the mundane to build the insane. It also means you can work around things which delay the reader, even for an instant, in the comprehension of your narrative. Awkward formulations and debatable usages can jerk your audience out of the dream harder than a slap with a kipper. I avoid “the government is” and “the government are” if I can, because neither of them is a guaranteed hit [*]. Sometimes the challenge is not to get it right but to recast to avoid a bit of wobbly language where you just can’t win.

Grammar can be a straitjacket, and that’s when you discard it. But much of the time it’s a frame from which you hang things, on which you build things, around whose struts and balustrades grow flowering vines. So long as you don’t end up hanging yourself on it, it’s a great thing to have. But you can’t reliably dispatch it unless you know it first.

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