Posted tagged ‘grammar’

The heroic pedant?

December 18, 2018

Here’s a strange story, you might think. Last week on the Isle of Wight a warning sign erected to alert motorists that pedestrians might be crossing the road was removed after complaints were received by the police that it was grammatically incorrect. It is crazy, some have suggested, to prioritise correct grammar over road safety, and indeed to involve the police in this endeavour. In fact you might ponder whether the constabulary are being called upon to feel the collars of greengrocers displaying errant apostrophes when selling tomatoes, or of the writers of reports eschewing the required subjunctive in appropriate contexts.

Well, if I were (not ‘was’) a policeman, I might think that knife crime is a better object of my attentions. But does that mean that we should all just enjoy the carnival of grammar chaos rather than get exercised by the inability of the population to see the difference between its and it’s? Should we worry that nobody now seems to know when to use ‘me’ and when to say ‘I’? We could of course point to the history of the English language, and the fact that rules of grammar were something of a latecomer to the party. And if we really hate the sort of person who keeps correcting others, we might alert them to research that suggests they suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

However, there are arguments in favour of linguistic pedantry. A friend of mine has pointed out that there is a difference between a ‘walking stick’ and a ‘walking-stick’, the former being a stick that walks. We might not expect to encounter an autonomous ambulatory stick, but there are plenty of misunderstandings that could in other contexts be caused by a missing or wrongly-placed hyphen. Language is about communication, and precision of meaning is not unimportant, particularly in certain settings. We should perhaps not be exercised by what we hear on the street or by what we see in a greengrocer’s shop window, but in more formal settings we should continue to encourage the observance of rules that support effective communication and preserve the richness of the English language.

Linguistic pedantry

July 17, 2018

Every so often when I feel moved to correct someone’s English (and I’m not really proud that I do this at all), I usually apologise quickly and point out that English is my second language. I learnt it at school, and with it the relatively few rules of grammar that come with the language but which almost none of its native speakers seem to know these days.

So, when I encourage people to use the subjunctive in appropriate settings I only get blanks looks. I recently also drew a blank when I suggested that, in a particular sentence, the indefinite article would be better than the definite article. You get the idea. But then I remember that English evolved by use and custom and that, until recently, rules of spelling and grammar were not really common or accepted. Really, I should just shut up.

But occasionally there are things that just annoy me, not always for easily understandable reasons. For example, I despair at the increasingly common mistake of saying ‘with regards to’ when the speaker is not referring to presenting his or her best wishes to someone. It should of course always be ‘with regard to’, without the trailing ‘s’. And of course there is everyone’s bugbear, the inability of far too many people to distinguish between ‘its’ and ‘it’s’.

But as I said, the English language is constantly evolving. Does it therefore need grammar at all? Or does grammar still serve a purpose, that of facilitating accurate communication?

What’s in a word?

May 5, 2015

Readers of this blog will be familiar with the travails of universities considering the desirability of a name change. Trinity College Dublin, a little while ago, toyed with the idea of calling itself ‘Trinity College the University of Dublin’ (assuming their business cards could be widened to fit all that in); it later, after a lot of negative feedback, changed its mind. King’s College London toyed with the idea of calling itself ‘King’s London’, another perhaps somewhat daft idea apparently abandoned. And more recently, the University of Akron in Ohio reportedly considered a name change to Ohio Polytechnic Institute; that such a change could be desirable will baffle university people in Britain, but in the United States the term ‘Polytechnic’ has a positive meaning, suggesting in particular an institution close to industry.

But that’s not my point in this post.

The anticipated change has drawn a hostile response from many quarters, in particular alumni and staff. It is the response of one of these academics that has shocked me far more than the name change:

‘Myself and a lot of my colleagues came to this university for a job because it was a full-fledged university, not because it is a polytechnic.’

Really? ‘Myself and a lot of my colleagues’? I am amazed that a senior academic would produce such grammatical nonsense. I know full well that the rules of grammar are increasingly dead, but surely in Akron they can say, without needing a patronising university president like me to prompt them: ‘Many of my colleagues and I came to this university.’

Can anyone still write?

February 10, 2014

A little while ago I received a letter from a manager in a large multinational company. He enclosed an extract from a report which had been written for him by one of his staff, whom he supposed – wrongly as it happens – to have been one of my students a few years ago. This extract ended as follows.

‘In regards to the incident, we mustn’t presume. I have put together some further thots in an appendice, and you can look at at your lesure. Their’s douts of what really hapened and who’s fault it is.’

My correspondent’s purpose was to suggest that I, or certainly the system of which I was a part, had failed to educate this man appropriately and to ensure that he had writing skills that made it safe for him to be released into the community. The implication was that this person’s ineptitude with the written word was representative of his generation, as my supposed inability to teach the relevant skills was representative of mine.

In fact the internet is full of alleged examples of bad student writing, and the suggestion that they cannot handle metaphors and similes in particular is a recurring theme – even if the rather amusing examples regularly given are almost certainly not genuine. The suggestion is often made that the school system has failed an entire generation of young people by neglecting to educate them in basic writing skills; and this seems to be a worldwide problem.

Of course some complaints are offered by pedants who find the idea of a living, changing language repulsive and who will go on endlessly about split infinitives and the like. But on the other hand, it is true that we can all receive letters, emails and reports that disclose an extraordinary lack of very basic skills of spelling, grammar and syntax. I cannot tell whether these educational failures that blighted the last generation have been addressed for the one that followed; but if not, then something will need to be done, and if universities cannot themselves fix the problem, they can make a noise about its significance.

So how important are spelling and grammar?

September 27, 2012

Earlier this week I took part in a brief conversation between some secondary schoolteachers and academics. The question arose whether the claims sometimes made by employers that too many university graduates are bad at spelling and grammar are justified; and if they are, whether it actually matters. One of the teachers suggested that students leaving secondary education are much more literate and numerate these days than they were some ten or 20 years ago, but that in any case too much importance was being attached to this. I expressed the view that the quality of communication did at least to some extent depend on a person’s ability to master the basic rules of spelling and grammar.

Nearly ten years ago the Guardian carried a report that suggested that student spelling and grammar had reached a ‘crisis point’. Since then, the school curriculum in some countries has again placed more emphasis on these particular skills; so has the situation improved? And how much does this matter?

Sic transit

May 29, 2012

A little while ago at a meeting, someone handed me a note which read, inter alia, ‘this must be done ab inissio.’ Somehow this stumped me, and it took me a minute or so to realise that the writer was talking Latin, and that what he had wanted to say was ‘ab initio’. Welcome, then, to what’s left of the world of Latin.

In fact, Latin was after 2000 or more years condemned to death when the Roman Catholic church decided to celebrate the Mass in the vernacular. With the few other bodies that had required Latin all abandoning the language by the late 20th century, it was clear enough that the language could not realistically continue to prosper.

In fact, by the 1980s it was pretty much gone. I still belonged to a generation that had to learn Latin at school. By the age of 10 I could speak Latin fluently, in the sense that I could string together words that would convey a clear meaning – even if I, like most others, had no absolute idea what the Latin of ancient Rome sounded like, phonetically.

I am not normally given to traditionalist nostalgia, but it is my firm view that the removal of Latin from the syllabus of schools and other educational establishments was a mistake. Young people no longer have this tool that would help them to understand the origin of words and the structure of grammar. There is  very little else, and certainly nothing more modern, that would have the same beneficial effect.

I doubt I could persuade anyone to mount the barricades with me in support of Latin. But I regret that. I hope someone will see sense and restore Latin. Tam celerrime.

Capital Ideas in the University

July 19, 2011

Having let off steam about the misuse of the apostrophe yesterday, let me just point to one other stylistic habit that really annoys me. It is the practice of using capital letters at the beginning of words where no capitalisation is called for. Universities are particularly guilty of this practice, with a near-universal habit of capitalising the word ‘university’, for no good reason at all. Here’s an extract from one English university’s website:

‘We have always been pioneering in our course provision, being the first British University to offer a Peace Studies degree and the first University outside London to offer part-time degree courses’.

There is no reason to capitalise ‘university’, nor indeed for that matter ‘peace studies’. Unfortunately this kind of thing is common throughout the higher education system – though here’s one that gets it right. But in one report from another university I read recently, the following were all capitalised: ‘university’, ‘department’, ‘subject’, ‘student’, ‘lecturer’, ‘building’, ‘examination’, ‘procedure’. Oh dear.

For readers who may not be clear about where it is appropriate to use capitalisation, and where it is not, this guide published by Purdue University is useful.

Tackling basic literacy skills

June 30, 2011

According to Patrick Kinsella, Head of the School of Communications in Dublin City University, journalism students enter the university with excellent final school results but with major ‘gaps in their grasp of basic English, including spelling, grammar, punctuation and word usage.’ According to a report in the Irish Times, DCU will now ‘allocate more time to the teaching of basic writing skills to first-year journalism students’.

Many universities in the English speaking world now have similar experiences. But not everywhere. A colleague who recently came back from two months teaching in India told me that students there write in ‘beautiful English’ and with hardly any mistakes in spelling and grammar. When I attended an event at which a number of students spoke in China, not long ago, I was also hugely impressed with the standard of English in evidence there.

This is not a minor issue. Many institutions in these islands derive a considerable income from teaching English as a foreign language, and people coming to Britain and Ireland often do so to learn the language. In addition, the capacity of our students and graduates to express themselves clearly and correctly matters in all sorts of settings, including journalism, business, education, the arts and others.

The DCU initiative is to be welcomed, but others also need to address this problem. The English language is an important resource for us; we need to treat it well.

Boldly going … nowhere

June 23, 2009

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.

Writing skills

May 4, 2009

Some weeks ago I wrote a post in which I considered whether better examination results were evidence of ‘dumbing down’ in higher education. This triggered a fairly lively discussion. More recently I was at a dinner and was sitting at a table with several businesspeople – well, let’s be honest, they were all businessmen, but that’s another topic; I asked them whether they believed that university standards in Ireland had dropped. There was some discussion and some differences of opinion, but then one man there made a comment with which pretty much all the others agreed. He said he could not be sure whether standards were slipping, but he was inclined to say they were. And why? Because almost no graduate he employed just coming out of university could write grammatically correct English. There was a lot of nodding of heads when he said this. Jumping straight into defensive mode, I helpfully pointed out to him that in the statement in which he made this complaint he had split an infinitive and failed to use the subjunctive where it was required, but I don’t think this took him off his stride, alas.

I think I could not easily deny the truth of this assertion. However, I might add more generally that inadequate writing skills seem to me to be a feature of society more generally these days and are not confined to recent university graduates. I get scores of letters and emails which make me wince as I read them and have to negotiate my way through sentences lacking the basic grammatical elements.

The problem here does not, I think, lie in universities. We are not remedial English institutions. If someone cannot write when they get as far as us it may well be too late already. It seems to me that we need to ask whether our pedagogical methods at all levels of the education system are sufficiently directed towards these elementary but vital skills. If we are producing a generation of inarticulate young people we are creating some very serious problems for ourselves – it is an issue we need to take seriously.

It may well be that we have altogether lost a sense of the importance of grammar in particular – but I shall leave that for another post, soon.