The grammar paradox

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.

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