Sunday, 4 March 2012

national grammar day

I'm a nerd, and I recently spent some time with some other nerds, on a boat. One thing I couldn't help noticing, besides how much we hate George Lucas, is how much us nerds love proper grammar.* I guess we love pedantry, and this is an easy way to be pedantic.

Except… in most fields, when we want to find out how something works, we examine the evidence. We don't believe something just because someone tells us to believe it. But when it comes to language, we ignore the evidence and we believe whatever we’re told. After all, what else is “proper grammar”, besides a series of prescriptions usually motivated by nothing more than ipse dixit.

Take this guide to commonly misused words. This is from the entry on hopefully:

This word is used incorrectly so much (including by me) it may be too late. But let’s make you smarter anyway.

How can believing something simply because someone told you to believe it make you smarter?

Or 20 Common Grammar Mistakes That (Almost) Everyone Makes - if almost everyone makes them, how can they be mistakes? As motivated grammar says, one of these things is not true.

As an example of how we ignore the evidence, look at the rule for which and that from the "20 Common Grammar Mistakes" article. I wrote about this a while ago. Quite simply, the claim that which cannot be used with restrictive relative clauses is false. It doesn't describe how the English language works.

I also wrote about fewer and less: less can be used with count nouns and has been used with count nouns for 1000 years.

Or anxious: anxious has been used without any connotation of anxiety by some of the best writers of English.

This Grammar Day, treat grammar just like any other field of inquiry. Have a look at the evidence - I recommend starting with Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage - and make up your own mind.

* for the record, I personally don't hate George Lucas, and I don't love proper grammar. Maybe I should hand in my Original Geeksta card.


Drew Mackie said...

Hear, hear!

(I damn nearly wrote "Here, here," and had to think my way through that one.)

sound words said...

"a series prescriptions"

'of' prescriptions... :-)

Glen Gordon said...

Prudish grammarians are academic tyrants that hold language hostage for an ego-trip. They'd rather have an illusion of control over things rather than to truly master them through understanding. (And "understanding" invariably requires us to look outside ourselves afterall.)

Jonathon Owen said...

I recently came across a quote from Edward Finegan that you'll probably enjoy, goofy. He was discussing Garner's entry on hopefully in his legal dictionary: “I could not help but wonder how a reflective and careful analyst could concede that hopefully is all but ubiquitous in legal print and claim in the same breath that careful writers and speakers avoid using it" (full source here).

So much usage advice boils down to the same thing. They pay lip service to the idea of a standard based on educated usage, but they can't let go of the idea of a much higher standard based on the preferences of an elite few.

WordzGuy said...

All of the peevery makes sense if one thinks of it not in terms of what's factually true, but what is true according to fashion and taste. Those characteristics are subjective and tend to be dictated by a self-appointed elite. Every time one of these guys says "incorrect," read "in poor taste" or "not fashionable," and things clear up considerably. By those criteria, if a majority of speakers use a term -- what some people might even cite as empiricial evidence of its correctness -- it can still be "wrong" or "misused" (i.e., in bad taste as per the peever). It's just a little confusion about terminology, is all. :-)

goofy said...

Wordzguy: I see your point, but then the question becomes: why should you conform to these opinions or taste when these opinions aren't shared by the majority of the English writing community? It's no longer about checking facts, but some critical thinking is still required, I think.

Matthew said...

Um, "us nerds"?

goofy said...

Do you mean instead of "we nerds"? Remember, 1) I don't love "proper grammar", 2) it's a common idiom round my way, 3) there are differences between informal and formal English, 4), a object case pronoun in apposition to a noun in subject position is quite common (MWDEU, "pronouns").

Paweł Jasiński said...

That's why we learn all life long. You never know what wrong you learnt.