Sunday 4 May 2014

Bad behaviour, bad grammar?

Every so often someone (sometimes me, or,  this week - Hadley Freeman) writes a 'Comment is Free' note in the Guardian or a book (eg Harry Ritchie, Simon Heffer) which raises the question about 'good' or 'bad' grammar. The Bad Grammar Awards bring the matter to the surface too. If, like me, you follow the threads of comments after, say, Hadley Freeman's recent article, you realise that part of the problem is that people use the word 'grammar' to mean quite different things: 1) the grammar of all language, 2) the terms people use to describe this grammar, and 3) the grammar of Standard English - which some people would prefer to call 'good' or 'correct'. 

(By the way, in this article, when I write the phrase 'Standard English', I am only talking about writing. This article is not about how we speak to each other. )

One way of thinking about all this is to make an analogy: take the word 'behaviour'. Behaviour can be:

1) a general term to describe the whole of how people, animals, plants - even inanimate objects like planets - behave. And 'behaving' often means something to do with movement and interaction. The point is that it's intended to be a general, neutral term to talk about something that we are agreed exists. It's not of itself a comment about whether it's good or not. 

Then, 2) there are terms to describe this behaviour, which are constantly being reviewed and adapted. So, we might, say, talk about 'aggressive' behaviour. But then, at some point in the last 20 years or so people started talking about 'passive-aggressive' behaviour. Two terms which people thought were different and distinct were brought together to describe something that, let's say, hadn't been noticed before. It wasn't that the 'behaviour' changed: it was that we now had a new word to describe something that had always been there. Interestingly, you could make an argument for saying that now we have a new phrase which we think describes our behaviour, if we are aware of it, we end up modifying our behaviour! 

Then, again, 3), we have ideas about good and bad behaviour. Clearly, this isn't the same as behaviour, on its own, as I've used it in the first sense. Good behaviour is a set of agreed guidelines between groups of people. Within institutions that have the power to control its members, these become instructions or rules. Society as a whole has laws to lay down some rules though the history of societies is that there is a permanent disregard of many of the rules, even by those who lay them down. 

If we take these three ideas to do with behaviour across to 'language', we can see some analogies. 

With 1) - language goes on without us having terms to describe it (ie 2)). And language can happen whether the language going on is 3) 'standard' or not.  And in category 2), linguists argue about terms to describe grammar. So, one example: I was taught that the word 'my' in 'my brother' was a 'possessive pronoun'. Some grammarians say that 'my' in that example is not being used instead of a noun which is what pronouns do. So it should be called a 'determiner'.  I'm not taking sides on this. I'm merely pointing out that the words to describe 'my' might change, but we go on being grammatical and saying 'my brother' anyway. 

In an ideal world we would have three different words for these three quite different ways of talking about 'grammar'. Then, when discussion and argument break out about 'grammar' we could argue about the same things and not all three at the same time. 

The problem with not having three separate words often occurs precisely when we say that Standard English is 'good' or 'correct', of itself. That's because it immediately tells us that that any other way of writing is 'bad' or 'incorrect'. So, whereas it would be fairer to say, 'this is Standard English' and if you depart from this Standard, you are being 'incorrect according to this Standard', it's surely not right to say that 'all non-Standard forms of writing are bad and incorrect'. To take an obvious example, instructions, headlines, signs and advertisements disobey the rules of written Standard English to do with sentences. Yet, no one is going to give a Bad Grammar award to Transport for London for leaving off full stops at the ends of their instructions and signs in the London Underground. Most of us accept that there is a non-Standard written English for that kind of writing. Even the sign 'No Smoking' is 'wrong' or 'bad', as it is, in terms of Standard English, 'bad'. It is given to us as a complete instruction but it has no verb. There is no instruction, or command - which we usually take from a verb, as we do with 'Don't', or 'Get out'. We don't demand that the sign should read, 'Don't smoke'. We're fine with 'No Smoking'. 

How then should we describe, 'No Smoking'? As a Standard way of writing something that is Non-Standard? So we can be OK with it? 

Meanwhile, there are hundreds of slips, errors, mistakes, oversights and the rest which we all make, even as we are trying to write Standard English. If the person reading the slip or mistake can understand what that person has written, then it seems to me it's not 'bad grammar' within my first general category of grammar as a description of how the language works. If we got the meaning, it worked. The language interaction 'happened'. Indeed, as is often pointed out, if you can spot the mistake, the chances are you understood what was intended anyway! The grammar worked even though it didn't conform to the instructions of Standard English. 

So, for example, some people will say that a 'double superlative' is 'bad grammar'. This is when we not only use a 'most' we also put '-est' on the end of a word. Shakespeare was fine with it. He wrote, and we hear Mark Antony saying,  'the most unkindest cut of all'. There is no problem with understanding this. The grammar (in my first sense) works. There is no problem with meaning. The only problem can be that some people think that stylistically, it's no good. For some people, double superlatives may well be 'bad style' but that's a whole other ball game. 

Then again, Standard English itself changes. In my lifetime, many features that were given to us at school as rules have been adapted and changed in the very places where Standard English was supposed to prevail: newspapers, novels, broadcasting (though that involves speech, which is a whole other matter) and so on. 

So, to take one simple example, we were told over and over again, never write 'don't' or 'can't' in formal prose. You can only use it when you're writing dialogue. That rule has gone. 

No one said, that it had gone. So what happened to it? Did it get 'eroded'? And who decided?

This leads us to one of the mysteries of Standard English. It changes but we don't know exactly why or how. The Oxford English Dictionary can often chart when it first happens - in writing, but it can't definitively tell us why. All we can say, is that to pretend that Standard English is a constant, unchanging way of writing is not true.