Friday 7 May 2021

What is grammar?

 I'm someone who believes that there is something we call 'reality' or 'nature' or the 'material  world' and this precedes the terminology we use about it. A cliff exists before we thought up the word 'cliff' and before we decided that the cliff was made up of 'rock', 'pebbles', 'stones', 'earth', 'soil', 'mud'. We also decided that a significant thing to say about cliffs is that they are 'eroded'. This language represents a selection of bits of the material world and giving them names, and selecting what we believe to be important processes and giving them names too. 

I'm not going to say that any of this is wrong but with a bit of imagination, you or I might choose some other bits of the cliff and other processes and regard these as more important to talk about. For example, my top priority might be cracks and fissures. I could create a whole classification system for these and provide an argument as to why they are the most important thing about cliffs. Or, instead of erosion, I might wish to classify cliffs in terms of 'the most suitable for hang gliding off'. 

With this talk of cliffs and language about cliffs, it's quite easy to see that what we choose to describe and how we frame knowledge can vary a great deal. This depends on where we are in the history of ideas and the purposes for which our terminology is needed. 

Why would 'grammar' be any different? And yet people often talk about  'grammar' as if it is some kind of holy writ, a perfected descriptive apparatus of 'language', and that its processes - variously called 'functions', 'rules' and the like - explain all that there is to know about 'how  language works'. Indeed, some will talk of 'grammar' as if it is language or as if we can reduce 'language' to 'grammar'.

This last point would be the same (and as ridiculous) as saying that the cliff is the descriptions of it. 

So before we go into what is grammar, we have to be clear that language precedes 'grammar'. Grammar is a descriptive apparatus to describe something, not the thing itself.

Further, the term 'grammar' can not and does not mean one grammar or even 'the' grammar. In short, there are several, if not many, grammars. What has happened is that the inventors and writers of 'grammar' have managed to elbow themselves in front of all the other grammars and convinced powerful people (eg who run education) that their grammar is 'the' grammar. 

In fact, the grammar that primary aged  school children have to learn is 'one grammar that describes some terms and processes used in written standard English sentences'. That's it. However, under that heading, they do throw in some other stuff that isn't really grammar. They are:  examples of their sentence grammar straying into bits of semantics (eg use of words like 'command' for descriptions of forms of sentence), value judgements about ideal usages (eg with their use of words like 'formal', 'informal', 'correct' and 'incorrect'), stylistics (eg use of the notorious 'fronted adverbial' which is a choice we make according to what effect we might want to have on a reader), and false concepts that have nothing at all to do with 'grammar' (eg synonyms and antonyms). 

The field that this 'grammar' applies to is one small part of our total language output. By far the greatest amount of our language output is through speech in conversation. In comparison, the output of written standard English is tiny: very significant but tiny. All talk of 'correct' or 'right' or 'wrong' has to be seen in this light. Yes, if we want to say that written standard English must conform to certain ways of writing, fine - correct is OK. But let's not kid ourselves that this applies to speech. Speech has a whole 'grammar' (or many grammars) that are needed to describe eg how we converse, how we shape our subject-matter, how we revise what we say, how we emphasise, how we use prosody (sound, rhythm, speech-patterns, musicality), how we create patterns, how we use cohesion, how we are sensitive to different participants, different kinds of speech-situations, and different kinds of speech forms. Speech also tolerates hesitations, revisions, incompletions, noises that aren't usually called words yet convey meaning, gestures, tones of voice, volume of voice and a huge range of dialects and accents. All this is how most of us conduct our lives. Most of us do not conduct our lives through the medium of written standard English. 

This means that the 'grammar' that is taught in English primary schools has excluded the main way in which we communicate, share thoughts, ideas and feelings and how - when we do it - think in words. How bizarre! 

(By the way, let's not forget that written standard English is not the same as 'writing'. That's another hoax foisted on us. Poetry, song, plays, film scripts, TV drama scripts, dialogue in novels, advertising, signage, slogans, mottos, emails, texts, chat-room chat, etc are full of non-standard written forms. Much of what are described as 'rules' or 'correct usages' aren't rules or correct usages for these other forms of written language. And yet this 'grammar' by implication,  treats all  this other stuff as less important. It's not.)

But, as I pointed out in the previous blog, this 'grammar' excludes a whole set of conditions that explain how and why we write what we write. It excludes the role of the participants in any given piece of language. It excludes the genre, channel, text-type. It excludes the subject matter of the text . It excludes the historical conditions for the text. 

As if this wasn't enough exclusions, it also excludes processes that are vital for explaining our choice of language eg cohesion. Though the English primary school sentence grammar makes a nod towards cohesion, in fact it is a fundamental part of how we communicate in writing or speech. That's because cohesion processes are in effect what I have dubbed the 'secret strings' of language at various levels: through sound, patterns of imagery, patterns of 'affect' (ie language designed to convey feeling) repetition of words/phrases/clauses/sentences, similarities of any kind, contrasts, or  language that fits into this or that 'lexical field' ie forms of language we can group or link together by virtue of them being on the same topic, theme, or even language which co-refers to the same entity as with the pronoun system but also with phrases or words that 'refer back' in a text as even with the crucial word 'the' (!).  In fact, you could create a grammar of cohesion, make up your own terms for the processes involved, and for the particles or items that  you've selected and you would find that you had a very interesting and rich alternative to the 'sentence grammar of written standard English'!

The claim is made that we need  this 'sentence grammar of written standard English' to be able to write and to be able to analyse writing. I believe both of these propositions to be false. Some of this grammar is quite useful for 'writing sentences in standard English', but I argue that there are much richer descriptions of language that help us do this: most of which fall into the category of 'stylistics'. I have written a good deal about this elsewhere on this blog. Same goes for analysing writing. I do not accept that something so limited and weak in its explanatory power, and so inconsistent and confusing (and confused) in its terminology has much to tell us that is any way as powerful and rich as the full range of stylistics.