Boldly going … nowhere
Well, it was one of those ‘did-she-really-say-that’ moments. I was watching BBC2′s Newsnight earlier this evening, and heard tonight’s presenter, Emily Maitlis, introduce an item as follows. ‘Newsnight will boldly go,’ she said’, ‘where no programme has gone before.’ And then she added: ‘But please don’t write to us complaining about the split infinitive.’ Bless her.
Well, I hope nobody has written to the BBC, because of course there was no infinitive at all, and hence no opportunity to split one. But what bothers me now is that perhaps nobody even noticed that, and that there are indeed armies of people working themselves into a lather about something that never happened. Of course, there’s the old saying that when it comes to split infinitives there are are four types of people: those who understand the concept and care about it; those who understand the concept but don’t care about it; those who don’t understand the concept but do care about it; and those who don’t understand the concept and don’t care. I belong to the second group, by the way (while on the whole I won’t split infinitives, I don’t care about what others do). But I had always believed that there were no members of the third group; and now maybe I am wrong.
But the real point of all this is not that split infinitives are an important topic for conversation (well, that’s not absolutely true, the topic was once a last resort for me at a monumentally boring dinner when I had completely run out of topics for conversing with my taciturn neighbour). The point (and it is actually a serious one) is that the English speaking world has lost any remaining grip on grammar. Of late I have tried to raise the subject in various circles, but almost always find that everyone thinks that the whole concept of grammar is simply archaic. I understand that schools no longer teach it.
Grammar, however, is not a framework for useless rules. It is about the structure of language and the construction of meaning. An effective language is not just a method for stringing words together in the hope that the aggregation of these words will reveal a meaning. It is a way of conveying something in both words and structure, and an effective structure will assist the communication of nuanced meaning. But all that may be lost. One of the (educated) people I have raised this subject with volunteered that ‘if I was you, I’d forget about this, as English has no grammar.’ No fan of the subjunctive, then.
In fact, as we try to use technology to provide various kinds of linguistic support (such as machine translation), grammar becomes more important. And if the use of grammar is anarchic, it may become impossible to develop accurate software for this.
Of course I learnt English as a second language, and acquired it through various language learning devices that included studying the rules of grammar. Maybe I’m just annoyed that, in the end, it may all have been for nothing; unless there is a rebellion, and grammar is restored.Explore posts in the same categories: culture, education comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.