March 23, 2006

What the cat dragged in

A repulsive piece of grammar is like a mangled frog left by the cat in the middle of the kitchen lino. It is not necessarily ill-intentioned, but the repellent effect increases according to the frequency of the offence.
So writes the ever-delightful and pseudonymous language maven Dot Wordsworth in her lively and not particularly complimentary review of The Cambridge Grammar of English (thanks to Joanne Jacobs for the tip). She further endeared herself to me by writing that
Grammar is a question of manners, practically of morals. Please don't take me for a language policewoman. Prepositions at the ends of sentences are easy to live with. For us to casually split an infinitive seems no worse than for a Frenchman to split the negatives ne and pas with an interposing verb.

On the other hand, "Whatever", that infuriating response from the passively aggressive, is just rude.
Among the other rude and repulsive pieces of grammar cited by Wordsworth are "like",
as in, "I was like, 'Wow!' He was like, 'Come off it'." It is hardly a bit of grammar at all, more a kind of oral punctuation. The people who use it, usually young or would-be young, are extremely annoying.
Almost as annoying as The Cambridge Grammar, written by professors Ronald Carter and Michael McCarthy, who are nowhere near as discriminating as Wordsworth, choosing, as she writes, the "Panglossian ideal" that "Everything that is is right":
English as she is spoke possesses all the rules of grammar needed to construct new sentences never heard since those days at the dawn of our language when half-drunk Angles settled down in their smoky mead halls to hear the well-loved tale of old Beowulf. By listening to millions of words, a child learns the rules of his mother tongue. The wee creature may make mistakes, saying "wented", perhaps, instead of "went", by false analogy.
Wordsworth finishes up,
To refuse to correct the children's spelling mistakes and grammatical blunders in their writing robs them of the chance to gain employment. Grammar for beginners must be as fiercely prescriptive as playing scales is for anyone who wants to play the piano.

Without a knowledge of grammar, the young will be no more able to write down their thoughts coherently than they could text-message without knowing how to use a mobile phone. This will frustrate them, and relegate written English to the same kind of ghetto of incompetent self-expression with which we are familiar from graduates of art schools who have never learnt to draw.
As the t-shirts say, I'm with her. And if you enjoy Wordsworth's thoughts and writing, it's well worth tracking down her "Mind Your Language" column for The Spectator, preferably the print version at a decent local library, since all the good stuff is held hostage by the greedy grasping online subscription edition. Gah.

By the way, if you want an Oxbridge book for adults on English grammar and want something a) good, b) slim, and ) far cheaper than the above-reviewed doorstop, try A Grammar of the English Language, written by William Cobbett in 1820 as a series of letters to his 14-year-old son and available from Oxford University Press in a handsome paperback edition. As Cobbett writes in the introduction, addressed to young James,
The particular path of knowledge to be pursued by you, will be of your own choosing; but, as to knowledge connected with books, there is a step to be taken before you can fairly enter upon any path. In the immense field of this kind of knowledge, innumerable are the paths, and GRAMMAR is the gate of entrance to them all. And if Grammar is so useful in the attaining of knowledge, it is absolutely necessary in order to enable the possessor to communicate, by writing that knowledge to others, without which communication the possession must be comparatively useless to himself in many cases, and, in almost all cases, to the rest of mankind.

No comments: