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A guide to grammar schools - Johnny Grimond

Blog | By Johnny Grimond | Oct 25, 2022

In a time where language is changing faster than ever, Johnny Grimond examines how our understanding of grammar has changed

‘Mr Wolff didn’t marry before his death in London on 8th July, which he said was one of his few regrets. However, he didn’t dwell on it.’

I hadn’t known William Wolff but, after reading only a few paragraphs of his obituary in my local paper, I had formed a strong liking for this man of evident charm, humour and courage. I was not, however, expecting to learn, at least by implication, that he might have married after his death, which would have apparently spared him some posthumous regrets spoken from the grave.

What had gone wrong in the writing of those two sentences? Plainly there had been a breach of the laws of biology, but what about those of grammar? If both sentences had subjects and predicates and verbs and nouns and stuff, and the appropriate words all agreed in number and gender and so on, was that enough to make them grammatical?

John Stuart Mill would certainly have said no. ‘Grammar is the most elementary part of logic,’ he wrote. ‘The structure of every sentence is a lesson in logic.’

But few Victorians agreed – not even the freethinkers.

Indeed, by the 1920s critics were saying exactly the opposite: linguistic laws are not logical, but psychological.

Many of the rules found in different languages are so arbitrary, they argued, that they could not be deduced from the universal laws of logic.

Before long, H W Fowler was laying down rules on the correct use of English, in A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926).

For Fowler, ‘grammar’ was a general term for the science of language, whose parts included orthography (how words are written), accidence (how they are inflected) and syntax (how they are arranged in sentences). The other parts, including semantics (how words are understood), he dismissed as ‘meaningless … to the average person.’

Other students of language became more interested in describing the way English, or indeed language in general, was spoken in practice. Then came Noam Chomsky, whose Syntactic Structures (1957) made him the most influential linguist of the modern age.

Chomsky saw grammar as ‘a device of some sort for producing the sentences of the language’, but considered sentence structure to be quite independent of meaning. To support this view, he presented the sentence ‘Colourless green ideas sleep furiously’, a grammatically correct group of words with no apparent meaning.

Which brings us back to the sentences about Mr Wolff. Although logically they are nonsense, we know what the writer was trying to say. Often, nowadays, when people’s meaning is clear, the pundits pronounce their syntax to be fine. ‘Me and my wife went for a Chinese last night.’ ‘I was sat next to Graham.’ ‘Another guy was shouting like he was crazy.’ ‘Do you ever meet somebody and just want to knock their block off?’

Such sentences may offend old sticklers, but many pundits will say, ‘Get over it. English grammar has rules, but they’re not fixed by grammarians: they’re based on the way the language is used, so they change.’

Language has indeed always had inconsistent rules, not just over time but according to context – in speech, writing, law, dialects and so on. And though some rules may be innate in the mind, others have to be learnt. Or unlearnt. These days, it’s out with ‘him’ and ‘her’; in with ‘they’. It’s out with ‘coloured’; in with ‘of colour’. And it’s out with ‘breastfeeding’; in with ‘chestfeeding’.

It’s a paradox that just as the pundits are telling us to stop worrying about split infinitives and other offences invented by Victorian pedagogues bent on making English grammatically like Latin, interest groups are inventing a host of new crimes. The upshot is sentences such as this one, in the Times of 6th January: ‘Give a child a tree and a spade and they’ll soar.’ That, to me, but presumably not to the author, meant the tree and the spade would soar.

In truth, there are many grammars, and many grammarians, who delight in finding new meanings for many words, including ‘grammar’.

And most of us remain confused.