When I was on holiday earlier in the summer, it seems I missed an important event. On Friday, 4th July 2014, University College London and the University of Oxford co-hosted the inaugural English Grammar Day at the British Library.
I know. A so-called “English expert” should have known about this significant occasion. But instead of trundling off to the British Library that day, I was soaking up both the sun and the culture of my forefathers in Estonia. And yes, I had a lovely time, thanks.
Apparently, the programme was filled with stimulating talks from some top names in English grammar; perhaps most notably, renowned linguist and author of The Stories of English, David Crystal. OK, I know what some of you are thinking. I’ve never heard of David Crystal. He’s not your typical 21st-century celeb academic in the vein of Brian Cox or Alice Roberts. Those of you of a literary or linguistic bent will probably know Crystal’s work, however, and will be aware that getting him to speak at your English event is quite a big thing.
Reading the event programme got me thinking. Why is it that linguistic experts don’t tend to become public figures? After all, we all speak at least one language; linguistic communication is integral to our everyday existence. Is there just something inherently unsexy about grammar?
Of course, the work that linguistics do extends far beyond looking at grammatical constructions, but I’m going to go out on a limb to suggest that the public mind associates studying language with being taught how to put commas in the right place and when to start a new paragraph.
Remember the backlash when Lynn Truss’s book Eats, Shoots and Leaves was published back in 2003? OK, many people enjoyed the book (including me) and it became a bestseller, but it also provoked a negative reaction, with many labelling Truss a “grammar fascist”. Indeed, one journalist even went as far as to comb the book for mistakes in some sort of attempt to publicly shame Truss for having the temerity to write about grammar.
If you’re a grammar pedant (which, self-confessedly, I am), then you have probably already scrutinised this article for “mistakes” and you may even have found a few things you’d like to correct. And that’s fine because, firstly, grammar is an evolving thing; here, I’m clearly writing in a popular tone to appeal to a particular audience rather than constructing a formal document, and so some of the rules about not using “and” at the start of a sentence and not leaving a partial clause to stand alone can be overlooked. Secondly, despite what people will try and tell you, there is some leeway when it comes to correctness in grammar; some elements are a matter of personal style rather than being absolutely rigid, so we’re bound to disagree on some points. This is especially true when writing for the internet, a medium which has altered English enormously.
How, then, are we supposed to know which rules count? Well, formal writing is a one thing, but when it comes to web writing, tone and flow are crucial. Know your audience: will your readers expect you to follow grammatical tradition to the letter, or might they appreciate a bit of poetic licence? Does your writing run together smoothly, being both informative and enjoyable to read? These are major considerations for any written piece – and I was pleased to see that the English Grammar Day programme did include a session on vernacular writing, looking at regional differences, which suggests there is some merit in embracing our grammatical differences.
So, does “good” grammar still matter? Well, one of the important functions of grammar is to clarify meaning; sometimes a comma is the only thing that can help put your point across. “Jane likes cooking her family and pets” has a profoundly different meaning from “Jane likes cooking, her family and pets” (here, we could also get into a discussion about the Oxford comma but I’ll leave that for another time!). So we have to come back to those key matters: audience and flow. The flow of the first example is exactly what makes us misinterpret the meaning; we need to take a pause before the rest of the information is given for it to make sense.
Suffice to say, studying the way in which grammar is evolving certainly does matter and we, as language speakers, should take an interest. I hope to plan my holiday dates better next time so I’m able to go along to the next Grammar Day event.
Are you still reading this? If you are, thank you! Maybe there is some hope for the popularity of grammar after all…!