Grammatical Nonsense

If there’s one thing more irritating than grammar snobs, it’s counter-snobs who spout nonsense that’s equally puerile. For example:

I’ve not read the book in question, but I’ve seen the sentiments echoed a number of times on Twitter: if something is understandable it is therefore correct, especially so if lots of people speak or write in this way.

One of the things I noticed when learning Russian is how easily you can get by without articles, i.e “a” and “the”. Russian doesn’t have them and, seemingly, doesn’t need them. When Russians speak English they often get confused by the articles and leave them out altogether, sounding like the meerkats on Compare the Market adverts:

“I sit at table, ashtray is full, I use cup instead and drink beer straight from bottle. When bottle is finished I go to toilet.”

If Oliver Kamm’s logic is consistent, this ought to be correct English: it is perfectly understandable. But according to Hitchens this isn’t the case because:

Apparently, the correctness of English depends on who is saying it. But read the sentence in Russian-English in a Yorkshire accent and you’re not far off native English. Native English varies wildly, and includes Indian. If we’re to assume that “if its meaning is clear, it is good English”, then the concept of good English is basically meaningless: I can understand English when spoken with a 10% accuracy.

What’s amusing is the people who push this sort of thing are the types who usually boast they know additional languages (almost always a Latin-based European one, though: it’s never Turkish or Korean). These pompous arses wouldn’t dare suggest that one could say la chat, but they think “implies” is the same as “infers” because the mistake is made often and appeared in ancient literature. Perhaps no French speaker says la chat, but plenty of Russian speakers abandon the genders and say xoroshiy pogoda, usually Central Asians. Thankfully Russians, sensible folk, don’t write books saying it’s correct and encouraging it.

The whole thing is a sort of reverse-snobbery, whereby posh Oxbridge types in London embrace the quirks of the masses while speaking with a plum in their throat themselves. For all the “you decide what words mean” nonsense peddled by Kamm, you can be sure anyone following his advice when applying for a job alongside him at The Times wouldn’t get very far, and he’d never write in such a manner himself. But then, I’ve written about the quality of his professional advice before.

A cynic might suggest they’re deliberately dishing out poor advice to protect their own cushy positions.

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43 thoughts on “Grammatical Nonsense

  1. Police get called to incidence.
    Then when it really kicks off it’s coincidence.

  2. I completely agree with Peter. Indian English is not “Native English”.

    That’s not an argument he put forward.

  3. People can be very odd. A young Englishwoman once accused me of being posh. Questioning revealed that my qualification was having a Scottish education without being a Glaswegian.

    P.S. Grammar is easy: copy me.

  4. It does wind me up when I hear announcements such as “Train arriving at platform 4…” Etc. it isn’t fucking difficult, is it?

  5. Yes, I’ve noticed that the people who claim to think that learning to read and write generally-acceptable English doesn’t matter are usually people who have prospered exactly because they are fluent in generally-acceptable English.

    I remember Michael Rosen (author, broadcaster, ex-children’s laureate etc) writing an article in The Guardian lambasted the horrific oppression of standard English. He chose to get his point across by writing the piece in perfectly clear standard English.

  6. Most (all?) languages have fluff that can be omitted. The thing is the fluff is useful to help comprehension even though it isn’t strictly needed if you hear every syllable perfectly enunciated (or can read every letter on the page). On the other hand we don’t speak in noiseless environments where every listener can hear everything perfectly. The fluff provides the necessary error correction so that listeners can get the gist without having to interrupt and ask the speaker to repeat

  7. I think most beautiful clear uncluttered English was written by George Orwell.

  8. Stephen Pinker wrote a book ‘The Language Instinct’ that explained all this. Language is defined anew, collectively by each generation of children, as they figure out the rules from how their parents and peers use it. It mutates as the generations pass, and each sub-culture has its own variations, but if developed naturally by children each one consistently follows its own set of grammatical rules. No, you can’t simply redefine grammar independently of everyone else, but a lot of the grammatical complaints people make are really about different dialects. They’re perfectly correct in their own dialect, but sound wrong in any other dialect. Shakespeare sounds odd to modern ears, and Chaucer is nearly incomprehensible.

    Spoken language is instinctive, and your intuitive understanding of language is almost always correct, but written language is not, and is far more likely to be corrupted by ‘education’. According to Pinker, the most grammatically pure/consistent language found is ‘baby talk’, used by mothers to their children, and the most grammatically inaccurate language is found in formal academic papers, when people try to speak more correctly, and wind up botching it because the simplistic rules they learned at school are only the crudest approximation to the rich and complex structure that any three year old has already learned instinctively.

    While the observation is often used as an excuse for poor educational standards, it’s quite true that linguists nowadays do define “correct” language from the way it’s used in practice, and accept that the rules are constantly changing.

  9. NiV,

    Thanks for the comment, nothing to disagree with there.

    I don’t disagree with what Kamm says in many ways – he is, after all, mainly regurgitating what Pinker has already said (Pinker writes the blurb on the front and back) and constantly says things like “all grammatical scholars agree with me” – and yes, language does evolve.

    What annoys me is he thinks that grammatical scholarship has anything to do with writing, and he seizes on strictly *scientific* inaccuracies in style guides and pompously says they wrong because a grammatical scholar says so. He might as well go through a recipe book pointing out the chemistry errors.

    Now it’s true that a lot of authors of style guides are pompous arses and much of the grammar pendantry is ridiculous, and when they refer to grammatical rules they are wrong in the strictest sense, i.e. as a grammatical scholar understands it. But Kamm has taken this to mean that the whole lot should be chucked out in a big free-for-all, scoffing at the authors of style guides for having the gumption to claim authority over grammar. This from a man who has penned a book full of “advice” which dismisses one grammatical claim after another, purely on the basis that he thinks scholars would agree with him (he is as unqualified in the field as those he condemns). I asked him if any Russian grammatical scholar would support his assertions, wondering whether his claims might be limited to English, and he didn’t reply. Applied to Russian as I understand it, some of his claims are laughable – but I might be wrong.

    What pisses me off is a style guide saying you should not conflate “infer” and “imply” or “refute” and “deny” is actually doing the right thing: it is trying to get people to improve the quality and clarity of their writing. Kamm dismisses it on the grounds that grammatically it is all correct anyway (according to scholars) so just write however you want. Naturally, he doesn’t write like this otherwise he’d be out of the Times by lunchtime tomorrow.

    Style guides might be good, they might be crap, and people referring to “grammar rules” might be wrong. But if they’re telling people to write “He and I” rather than “me and him” and the former is preferred by most professionals, reads better, and is the safer option then they have a use. Kamm’s witterings based on grammatical scholarship largely unrelated to decent writing might impress the pompous twats who mix in the metropolitan media circuits, but they don’t impress me.

    (The reviews on Amazon make several of these points).

  10. Orwell was excellent. Have you read his “Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters”, Cuffleyburgers?

    P.S. Whoever wrote that title omitted the comma after “Journalism”. Poor show.

  11. I remember Michael Rosen (author, broadcaster, ex-children’s laureate etc) writing an article in The Guardian lambasted the horrific oppression of standard English. He chose to get his point across by writing the piece in perfectly clear standard English.

    Indeed, it reminds me a bit of the post-modern architects. They airily dismiss centuries of convention and tradition, then build hideous brutalist eyesores which everyone else should live in but never, ever them or people like them.

  12. I’m surprised that Hitchens, P subscribes to this nonsense. But then he also maintains that Islamist terrorism is caused by marijuana.

    Oliver Kamm is a cock.

  13. I always thought the difference between ‘imply’ and ‘infer’ was context and subtext. From the context of a piece it might be implied that something had happened, or from the subtext of a piece it might be inferred that this was the case.

    As for nailing down meaning, look up the archaic definitions, or read 17th, 18th, 19th or early 20th century literature to see that the English language is in a constant state of evolution.

    My only comment on Kamm’s article would be; “They paid someone to write that?”

  14. “Now it’s true that a lot of authors of style guides are pompous arses and much of the grammar pendantry is ridiculous, and when they refer to grammatical rules they are wrong in the strictest sense, i.e. as a grammatical scholar understands it. But Kamm has taken this to mean that the whole lot should be chucked out in a big free-for-all, scoffing at the authors of style guides for having the gumption to claim authority over grammar.”

    Agreed. The authors of style guides have no authority over the language, and are often wrong, but what they’re attempting to do is to describe precisely how *everyone else* uses the language. Everyone has to have a common understanding if communication is to take place.

    You have to use words like “infer”/”imply” in the same sense as the person you’re talking to. The historic usage makes a particular distinction and a lot of people out there still adhere to it, including all the dictionaries, so if you want to be understood clearly it’s best to use that definition. But there’s no point in getting bent out of shape over people using a different definition among themselves if they understand what is intended. It’s all context-dependent – it depends on your audience.

    People saying there is no correct definition and anything goes are as wrong as people saying there’s only one correct definition, forever and always. It’s defined by society; jointly by everyone trying to communicate their ideas to one another. Style guides can still have lots of useful things to say about being understood clearly and giving a good impression, without saying there’s only one “right” way to do it.

  15. “From the context of a piece it might be implied that something had happened, or from the subtext of a piece it might be inferred that this was the case.”

    The distinction is primarily about who is doing it. The person saying it implies, the person listening to it infers.

  16. NiV
    I have to disagree about Chaucer.
    Sure, it’s archaic, and the spelling is all over the place.
    But if you declaim it rather than read it it comes into focus.
    And surely Chaucer, in a century where literacy was rare, wrote for the spoken word, not for the written word.

  17. “All grammatical scholars agree with me…”
    Bollocks. Not even Stevn Pinker agrees with Kamm-
    My children (English, educated in France) drive me mad with their creole, which I have found infecting their schoolfriends too. When they were very little they made a firm boundary between the wo languages, now they don’t bother.
    Same with other tranposted (slaves or not). You start with pidgin, evolve to creole and pretty soon you’ve got the passive past participle subjunctive.

  18. “I have to disagree about Chaucer.”

    Sure.

    “And ech of hem at otheres synne lough.
    And right anon thanne comen tombesteres,
    Fetys and smale, and yonge frutesteres,
    Syngeres with harpes, baudes, wafereres,”
    🙂

  19. Peace of piss, Chaucer. If you spoke Scots in the primary school playground.

    I once found the same background helpful for understanding a Flemish TV programme.

  20. Indian English illustrates both the speed of evolution and malleability of languages. Unfortunately, and I say this as someone who’s day job involves dealing with written Indian English, it is of limited practical use in 2017.

    It’s a special case because it effectively cut itself off from global English in 1948, yet every educated person in India speaks and writes it. At least functionally, and often to a standard that would embarrass professional English writers (see the Daily Mail). And we can still understand it, despite the wholesale abuse of articles (Hindi grammar imposed on English). That said, American and British English remain very close, Indian is off on its own. The easiest example is that, while competent practitioners are aware that English has articles, they are totally incapable of using them appropriately. As a general rule, when an Indian wants to use a definite article they should not, and vice versa. The correct formation of the plural with or without an indefinite article is just impossible for most.

    The other principal joy with Indian English is in dealing with stuff that is not merely archaic, but positively Georgian. A colleague was recently dressed down for an email along the lines of “I do most humbly pray and beseech that the unseemly and indelicately unavoidable delay must have Occasioned tremendous and most distressing inconvenience might be, through your most generous of oversights…”

  21. dearieme
    Peace of piss, Chaucer. If you spoke Scots in the primary school playground.

    You waht?

    It’s a while since since I read a biograchy of Chaucer. He may have visited France a couple of times on the day job as a customs officer. But I’ve not heard about him going north of Watford Gap, let alone to Scotland.
    Are you suggesting that received pronunciation spread out from London to Glasgow, and then stopped? I suppose language does expand geographically but I’d like to see a bit more evidence that Chaucer’s did, in a foreign country.
    Any ideas? Let alone proof.

  22. BiG
    Yes, and they’ve got the bureaucracy that goes with it.
    Maybe they could do rip offs of Jane Austen and get loads a money from the BBC.

  23. “That’s Glasto for you”

    🙂

    “But I’ve not heard about him going north of Watford Gap, let alone to Scotland.”

    I think it’s a case of if you have practice decoding one non-standard dialect, any others are far easier.

  24. NiV
    Didn’t have the Latin, otherwise I could be a judge of this.
    But yes, if you have one language, learning another is hard, If you have two or more then, as dearieme says, it’s a peace of piss.

  25. I read somewhere that there are about 6.000 languages in the world.
    Two thirds of them are in New Guinea

    Conclusion. Language has two purposes;
    1, Communicate
    2. Not communicate

  26. Ye knowe ek that in forme of speche is chaunge.
    Withinne a thousand yeer, and wordes tho
    That hadden pris, now wonder nyce and straunge
    Us thinketh hem, nd yet thei spake hem so,
    And spedde as wel in love as men now do.
    Troilus and Criseyde (II. 22-26)

  27. dp
    rhymes are a good indicator of speech evolution
    OTOH Shakespeare would be a shedhead at Gloucester games nowadays.

  28. Why prattle on at the periphery in the protection of the English language when there are plenty of folk like me that are murdering it head on, with gay abandon?

  29. A colleague was recently dressed down for an email along the lines of…

    LOL

  30. People saying there is no correct definition and anything goes are as wrong as people saying there’s only one correct definition, forever and always.

    I agree, but…I don’t see there is much harm in parents and teachers saying “this is the correct way to speak or write” even if, in the strictest sense, there is no correct way. Whereas somebody saying “Who cares, just speak however you do in the playground, by definition it’s correct” is IMO doing considerable damage to the prospects of people whose prospects are not good anyway.

    My mother was an English teacher and was forever haranguing us to speak and write “properly”, particularly as we grew up in rural Wales (my parents are English). I don’t consider this to have done me much harm, quite the opposite in fact. And as dearieme points out in his very first comment, you can be sure Kamm’s brats are being raised to speak the Queen’s English to ensure they can follow in Pater’s footsteps into Oxford and the Times.

    David Thompson does a good job pointing to ridiculous instances in America where young black kids are being encouraged to speak, write, and behave however they want instead of complying with “white” professional norms: this is doing them massive damage, all so a few highly-privileged individuals can preen themselves and score virtue points.

    Personally, I think while style guides and grammar Nazis can be annoying, they don’t do much harm. Post-modern free-for-all BS does. There is no “correct” way to dress and clothing style guides can be largely ignored – but we still don’t want people wearing socks with open-toed sandals. It’s the same thing here.

  31. Interesting stuff here. From my point of view the greatest horror being foisted on written English these days is using ‘of’ instead of ‘have’ in emails or blog comments.

    I am sick of seeing ‘I would of gone to see it’ rather than ‘I would have gone to see it’. Just because it sounds the same if you slur your words… It should of course be spelt ov in that case.

  32. From my point of view the greatest horror being foisted on written English these days is using ‘of’ instead of ‘have’ in emails or blog comments.

    According to Kamm this is fine and when written is, at worst, a spelling mistake.

  33. there are plenty of folk like me that are murdering it head on, with gay abandon?

    Really? We hadn’t noticed! Nor had TNA, honestly.

  34. From my point of view the greatest horror being foisted on written English these days is using ‘of’ instead of ‘have’ in emails or blog comments.

    For me it’s the use of “off of” in cricket when referring to how many runs the team batting second needs. “Surrey require 31 off of 22 balls”, etc. Ugh.

    31 from 22 balls, please.

  35. @james: Scots is a conservative tongue and so bears a greater resemblance to Chaucer’s English than modern English does.

    If you find this abstract point a bit over your head I suggest you google up some Scots and have a look.

    I realise you may have the Englishman’s incapacity to know much about England’s history, never mind Scotland’s, but do persevere.

  36. Now I know you’re pulling my leg, dearieme.
    Last time I was there the hey-jimmies weren’t even speaking the lingo of Rabbie Burns, let alone Chaucer.
    Scots a conservative tongue? Someone more interested could ID a scot by postcode, so much does the accent change.

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