Sunday, 12 September 2010

My Grammar’s Better Than Your Grammar

Why I Won’t Be Buying Simon Heffer’s Book

UK newspaper columnist, Simon Heffer, has recently been promoting his book, ‘Strictly English’, which is all about the rules of English grammar. If you think I am overjoyed, think again. I haven’t read the book and, frankly, I am not inclined to do so. However, I am unimpressed by the extracts printed in The Telegraph.

Mr. Heffer’s views on grammar are distinctly of the “What I say is right, what you say is wrong” variety. In other words it is prescriptive, authoritarian and dull. He seems to work on the assumption that grammar is a set of inviolable rules and to ‘talk proper’ all you have to do is learn those rules. He states (and this I find jaw-dropping) that: “Our language is to a great extent settled and codified”. Well, your language may be, Mr. Heffer. Mine certainly ain’t!

In my long career in journalism, I have come across a few editors and subeditors who share Mr. Heffer’s views. When in doubt on some point of grammar they refer to the ultimate distillation of the knowledge of the Ancient Grammarians - a Holy text known as ‘The Style Sheet’. The Style Sheet contains such gems of wisdom as: “Thou shalt not use the passive voice” and “Refrain from using first person singular for this is a vile and egregious sin.

Mr. Heffer’s inviolable rules of grammar are more numerous and more restrictive than any Style Sheet which I have had the misfortune to encounter. On the radio the other day, he waxed red in the face on the horrors of mixing up your ‘shall’s with your ‘will’s. According to the BBC web site, he also believes that the sentence "The Prime Minister has warned that spending cuts are necessary" is grammatically incorrect (more on this later). He goes on to argue that the word ‘viable’ should only be applied to organisms since the dictionary defines viable as "capable of living". In fact, this is not true. I’ve just checked in my copy of the OED and it gives Mr. Heffer’s preferred definition first, followed by a much looser figurative definition “Of immaterial things and concepts” and it quotes an example from 1848: “the viable medium, the medium of harmony”. Possibly Mr Heffer considers the figurative meaning to be a bit too modern for his tastes?

By the way, if you are still wondering why Mr. Heffer asserts that "The Prime Minister has warned that spending cuts are necessary" is ungrammatical, I recommend this article from excellent Language Log - which also explains why Mr Heffer is wrong. Language Log has another (rather effective) go at Heffer HERE.

My own view is that grammar describes language; it does not impose a set of rules upon it. Mr. Heffer is peculiarly reverential of the Oxford English Dictionary of 1928 and English grammars written at the same time. He says: “But” (yes, he really does begin the sentence with a conjunction!) “But we have had a standard dictionary now ever since the OED was completed in 1928, and learned men, many of whom contributed to the OED, wrote grammars a century ago that settled a pattern of language that was logical and free from the danger of ambiguity.”

I’m not sure why the learned men of 1928 should be regarded as greater authorities than those who preceded them? Grammar changes as the use of language changes. 1928 is neither a starting nor an ending point for that process of change. Ben Jonson was surely an author of sufficient greatness to compete with the learned men who contributed to the OED. So why should I not refer to Jonson’s Grammar of 1618? Or maybe I should go back further still? How about William Bullokar’s Grammar of 1586?

I may return to Ben Jonson’s Grammar in a future post. I suspect I would find it more illuminating than Mr Heffer’s book.

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