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.

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15 Comments on “Boldly going … nowhere”

  1. Berna Cox Says:

    The link is to the Saturday poem series in the Guardian. Clive James on grammar.

    And how was the split infinitive ever explained pre Star Trek? And I’ve just started two sentences with a conjunction. Oops.

    • Though you can see, Berna, that Star Trek can also mislead. And how easy it is to write incomplete sentences πŸ™‚

      • Berna Cox Says:

        At least the Star Trek writers put the infinitive in there before they split it: “…to seek out new worlds and new civilisations; to boldly go where no man has gone before”. πŸ™‚

  2. Vincent Says:

    In the past grammar was instilled via Latin, and English teachers could use examples in Latin to get a point across. In effect, learning English as a foreign language, and is that not exactly what they ended up with inside of Oxbridge, Trinners and the feeder schools to same.
    And it is just as well you are married, grammar as a topic at a dinner, now really, Westmeath will withdraw your passport if you keep that up.

    • I agree, Vincent, that the disappearance of Latin made the teaching of grammar both more difficult and less likely.

      • Vincent Says:

        Still, reading Philosophy should go some way to mitigate the lack from earlier years.
        One of those things I feel strongly, all, who attend University should have as their first year, Philosophy.

  3. Hugh Says:

    It is unfortunate that we seem to have drifted away from the basics of language education. Bertie Ahern’s attempts at “stringing words together in the hope that the aggregation of these words will reveal a meaning” clearly demonstrate that this isn’t always a successful strategy! But language does develop to reflect the times. I’ve just been struggling through J.S. Mill’s “On Liberty”; beautiful, nuanced English, but very hard work, and not exactly popular reading nowadays.

    The split infinitive is here to stay, I’m afraid, but if anybody wants to take up the challenge to annihilate the misplaced apostrophe, count me in. A sign on the side of a van invited me yesterday to have my “carpet’s cleaned!!”

  4. Pa H. Says:

    I hope your campaign has more success than the campaign for correct signage in Irish. For quite a while this one has arisen in letters to the editor, etc. but still the NRA / local councils continue with mis-spellings and manglings of placenames.

    On the one hand campaigns like these can be dismissed as pedantry or resistance to natural evolution — and I think the latter is ok — but if it’s ok to compromise on standards for the written / spoken word then isn’t it ok, for example, to slip through red lights (usually victimless), or to maybe shave a little off a tax declaration, etc., etc.? And what about long, rambling sentences ;-)?

    Pa H.

  5. cormac Says:

    I think the answer to the question ‘Is grammar important?’ is that good grammar is about clarity. If the meaning of a sentence isn’t clear, what purpose does it serve?
    A great deal of written work I see in Ireland falls into 1 of 3 categories
    1. Clumsy, but the reader can guess what is meant
    2. The reader has no idea what is meant
    3. The sentence means something quite different to that intended (one presumes)

  6. Paraic Says:

    Just noticed the reference to Machine Translation (MT) here. I know it’s not the core point but, as it turns out, modern MT has moved to ‘statistical’ approaches that are based on learning how people string words together rather than based on grammar rules crafted by linguists. See

    You may be glad to hear though that some of the CNGL MT research at DCU involves investigating whether syntactic information can improve the performance of these statistical MT approaches. πŸ˜‰

    • Thanks, Paraic. But surely it is grammar that determines the pattern of how people string words together. Without grammar it becomes more and more random and it loses identifiable patterns except in individual people.

      • Paraic Says:

        There’s a distinction between prescriptive grammar (which is what you’re addressing) and descriptive grammar []. A descriptive grammar can capture the emergent “structure of language and the construction of meaning” from the patterns of use of a language community in a context of use.

        There are plenty of examples of communities or contexts where there are widespread patterns of language use that do not fit the prescriptive grammar of English.

        In mining blogs and forums online for opinions (of products, companies, stocks etc.) for example, computer programs need to learn that ‘DUDE this board is BAD’ reflects a positive opinion of a snowboard. ‘Bad’ meaning ‘good’ is a clearly identifiable pattern in this context.

        There’s a descriptive grammar for the language of SMS texts (another area where I believe you’ve bemoaned the loss of language skills in this blog). SMS is a good example as the grammar of SMS is emergent from how people have adapted the English language to that medium. It’s not random and there are identifiable patterns that have come in to accepted use in SMS.

        A living vibrant language should be expected to evolve.

        • This would make a fascinating conversation… Actually, there isn’t always a clear distinction between prescriptive and descriptive grammar. Most grammatical rules for English were initially not rules at all but just developing custom (i.e. descriptive) that, eventually, were then given the status of a ‘rule’ when they had become widespread enough. It is in fact quite doubtful whether there was ever a very widely known set of rules for English. However, there was some sort of framework kept alive by the fact that Latin rules in particular were known, at least in educated circles. The fear I am expressing is that the whole concept of grammar is no longer understood, and one consequence of this may be that even descriptive grammar may disappear in that there may simply no longer be any real shared usage at all, or at least that shared usage may be quite localised, possibly even in a set of buildings alone.

  7. Paraic Says:

    Agreed. For simplicity, I suggest as a working definition of ‘language’ as, “a means of communication among members of a community”.

    What we’ve witnessed, particularly with the internet as a global and open communication infrastructure, is the fragmentation of communities around ever more fine-grained topics of shared interest. This is the problem of ‘localised’ language usage you refer to. There are communities and patterns of language usage around World of Warcraft, surfing, etc. which can be as incomprehensible as a ‘foreign language’ from the outside.

    I don’t however, foresee the complete loss of the concept of grammar. At its core language is about the accurate communication of information or meaning. There must be shared usage, shared structure to ensure that my utterance is understood by other members of my (however localised) community.

    We will, I agree, continue to see more fine-grained, localised language usage. The concept of grammar however must remain, driven by the need to communicate so as to be understood.

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