Blog in Grammar rants
A lot of people have been getting worked up about commentators using 'medal' as a verb during the Olympics.
Everybody calm down. The English language is packed to the rafters with verbs that didn’t start out as verbs. Like these:
Languages evolve, and there’s nothing we can (or should) do about it.
Boy, the British Government loves wading into debates about English usage. The Department for Education has just issued rules on which uses of the exclamation mark will get kids credit in tests (only in sentences that start with ‘How’ or ‘What’). A few years ago the Justice Secretary (and former Education Secretary) Michael Gove fired off his own idiosyncratic hodge-podge of guidance about what’s acceptable English and what’s not.
Now, here at The Writer, we bemoan the over-use of exclamation marks with the best of them. But an arbitrary rule about which sentences should have them, and which shouldn’t, is barmy. That’s not how language works.
We should be teaching kids (and exam markers) that these aren’t black-and-white issues, but questions of context, judgement and taste. And if you really want to know where exclamation marks actually get used, do some science. Get some data. There’s what an academic linguist would do. The Department of Health wouldn’t recommend a medicine on the basis of what colour pill some minister happened to prefer, so why do we tolerate the same subjective amateurishness about language? That’s how unsubstantiated superstitions like ‘You can’t start a sentence with “and”’ become accepted, but ill-informed, wisdom.
It’s not like it’s difficult to investigate. At The Writer we were debating how to describe in the US what our UK clients call ‘tone of voice’. In the US, we hear ‘brand voice’, ‘verbal branding’ and all sorts of alternatives. So we checked which terms people searched on Google, and ‘tone of voice’ was still the clear winner. Two minutes’ research into real usage and job done. Using facts, not hunches, or prejudices.
You might have heard us showing off about having Professor Steven Pinker round to ours the other week (well, okay, up a well-known London landmark).
Steve (as we can now call him) has written a book channelling all his years of experience and experiment in cognitive science and linguistics into advice for writers. And blow us down if the science doesn’t prove everything we’ve been banging on about for years. Phew.
But while we were hanging out in the clouds, our big-haired academic friend made a cute point about grammar.
There are two, you see. First, there’s grammar as linguists understand it: a set of rules in your head that tells you what you can say and what you can’t. That grammar tells you to say I’m having chips for tea and not *Having I’m for tea chips. (The asterisk is linguist for ‘no-one says this, it sounds bonkers’.) If you’re a native speaker, you don’t need to learn these grammatical rules; amazingly you just work them out when you’re wee.
Then there’s grammar number two (the way most people, especially ageing whiny journalists, use it): a set of ‘rules’ about how so-called educated people speak and write. Many of these rules are baloney: you really can start a sentence with and and split your infinitives like there’s no tomorrow. Despite what the old codgers say, these ‘rules’ are mere conventions, and they change over time, going in and out of fashion.
Professor Pinker pointed out that the things the sticklers get het up about can’t be fundamental grammatical rules. If they were, no-one would ever need to express them, just as you don’t need to ever tell anyone not to say *Having I’m for tea chips. The very fact the sticklers need a rule to say which bit of disputed usage is ‘correct’ proves that it isn’t a rule.
Neat, huh? Of course, following conventions can be useful to you. Menotfollowingspellingorpunctuationsconventionsmakesreadingdifficult. So if you want to know which to consider and which to ignore, either swing by our Grammar for Grown-Ups workshop, or download our swanky new app.
I’ve been spending another week running workshops in California. And every time I come over here, I’m struck by the esteem in which two texts on language are held: the AP Stylebook (I mean, Stylebook? One word?), and Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style.
To a Brit, the quasi-religious reverence these books seem to elicit in the USA is a bit odd. As a rule, I think in the UK we’re a bit more comfortable with the odd bit of linguistic jaywalking. So while I’ve got nothing against following the rules, or the AP Stylebook, if you’re looking for some rules to follow, please, please, please ignore the spurious ramblings of Strunk & White.
The brilliant Language Log has been skewering this ‘horrid little compendium’ better, and for longer, than I ever could (and it’s telling that they file their Strunk & White blogs under ‘prescriptivist poppycock’). But the basic point is this: their rules are so arbitrary and constraining that they can’t even follow them themselves.
And it’s why, when we give our clients writing guidelines, they’re just that; not rules, not laws, and not always right.