Sunday, 22 March 2015

For the love of grammar

The Grammar School

Yes, I went to a grammar school. It raised my expectations considerably and now I realise what an incredibly apt name it had. We had six lessons of English a week in our first year. There were two lessons on English literature, one on composition and three on grammar. In addition we learnt Latin and French through the Grammar Grind method. We thoroughly deconstructed language.

Grammar as a tool

The analysis is interesting and understanding how language works is very useful. I recognise a run-on sentence when I see one, though it is difficult to explain to someone who doesn’t have the terminology.
I also really understand what my computer means when it says “fragment – consider revising”. It’s telling me I’ve produced a piece of writing that does not contain a finite verb.
What’s a finite verb? A verb that has a defined tense, voice, person and mood. Pardon? A verb that is working, if you prefer.

What grammar does

Grammar is the backbone of the language. It shows who is doing what to whom. Without grammar what does this string of words mean: broken chair window caretaker mend. There are several possibilities. Grammar sorts it out.

No hard and fast rules

Surprisingly there are not except in those languages where there is some sort of authority looking after it. How grammar works differs from language to language. In the end it is about clarity. Interestingly, English is allowed to be fluid and evolve. It has no authority insisting on certain qualities. The OED advises us about words and Fowler about how we string them together.  Both, however, bow to usage.
Many people still frown on split infinitives but we now tend to boldly split them. And many frown upon sentences starting with “and” or “but” yet sometimes it can be quite effective. We were always admonished for using “different to” – it should be different from – but this is being more widely accepted now. 

The misunderstood imperfect tense

This is what prompted me to write this article. We are beginning to lose the sense of difference between “He was sitting.” and “He sat.” The former is imperfect, the latter preterit (though often used in an imperfect sense). He was sitting when the next action came along. He sat there may be over a protracted amount of time but the action is over and done with. “He used to sit” or “he would sit” imply a habit, all three conveyed in many other languages by what we call the imperfect tense. The action is not yet over. It is “imperfect”.

Knowing when to break the rules

This depends a little on knowing what the rules are in the first place. Then it’s important to ask the question “Is my change really effective?” It often has less impact than you might think. A copy-editor will pick this up. If they’ve used “track changes” to edit it may be worth hiding those changes and only putting them back on when you think any passage has lost its impact and even then consider whether  you can still keep the impact but keep to the rules and just rephrase.       
If we all understand what the writer means, what does it matter, we might ask.
Well, firstly, American publishers expect correct grammar. We all want our work published both sides of the Atlantic, don’t we?   
Secondly, grammar brings clarity and we want our texts to be as clear as possible. As English is a widespread first language, though its usage differs considerably form continent to continent, and the first foreign language for many people, we need as much clarity as possible.
Worth getting to know grammar, then?    

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