Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Grammar: it's not the name of the word that makes it behave that way...

Steven Pinker has written an article in the Guardian:

and there is a thread following his article - which itself is a summary of a new book he has out.

On the thread people were getting exercised about starting a sentence with 'but'. This is because people think that when we say a word 'is' a 'noun' or a 'verb' etc, then that's what it is forever more. Part of the reason for that is because that's how grammar is taught i.e. wrongly. Another reason, it's how dictionaries list words - but that is really only meant to be a guide not a prescriptive order.

On the thread below I made the comment below. It's an attempt to focus on the fact that there is 'grammar' but the 'grammar' is not in the names and rules we invent. It's in our usage, how we say and write things. The job of grammarians, or anyone describing language, is to describe it in use. Words in use have functions and work like cogs in a machine, they link with other cogs (words) so that there is a coherent 'utterance'. Unlike cogs, which are of a fixed shape in a fixed place in the machine, words can morph, move about, change how they fit with the other words. If we are serious about grammar, and serious about helping children understand it, then that's the model we should work with and not this silly stuff about naming words and telling them that the words have to behave in a certain way because we've named them that way. Here's my comment:

"There is no essential grammatical quality attached to any word until it is used. A word is not a noun until it is used as a noun. Same goes for 'but'.  When it is used as a conjunction, it is a conjunction. When it is used as a frontal adverbial or 'sentence adverb' - as it is when it begins a sentence, that's what it is. The great mistake of pedantry is to assume that words are what grammarians have called them. It's a form of nomenclature determinism. Luckily we are human beings and not machines, so we can say, 'but me no buts' or 'proud me no prouds' (which gets a red underline from the typography nazis in my computer) but was good enough for Shakespeare. 'Hah, but 'proud' is an adjective,' they cry. Not in that sentence - one is a verb and the other is a noun."