grammar day 2015

Discussions of standard English and its discontents usually start with decline and fall. Standards are declining, civilization is falling – or at least someone else says so, giving us something to argue against. The second annual Grammar Day at the British Library was no exception. Prescriptivism was a stalking horse for speakers, and it also showed up in person, in the form of an audience member who commented in the final discussion in the trumpeting tones of the sterotypical letter-writing colonel from Tunbridge Wells. When I heard him claim affiliation with the Apostrophe Protection Society, I thought he might be a plant or a hallucination; but when he said dyslexia was a myth (and was quashed by the panel) he seemed genuine.
The colonel was well outnumbered. The tone of this year’s Grammar Day was anti-corrections, unless they were political corrections: Sociolinguist Jenny Cheshire spoke about how new syntactic features in London teenage talk were “not ruining, but enriching grammar.” Harry Ritchie, author of the pop grammar book English for the Natives, said standard English should be taught “for what it is – not the only acceptable variety.” The library’s Jonnie Robinson played voice recordings crowdsourced at a library exhibition. Dictionary historian Charlotte Brewer rebutted the view that children’s dictionaries need more woodland creatures and less tech jargon, Teachers from Colchester and Holland Park reported from the front. Some of this was not grammar by any usual definition. It seems sad if not enough “hard” grammar topics and speakers could be found to fill a day, given the need for teacher training in grammatical thinking (grammatical discourse, grammaticla argument) that was identified at last year’s event. Surely another day could be devoted to spoken language variation.
The final panel [1] asked whether we really need to correct language “errors” – whether standard English is specified too tightly for actual communicative needs, and whether certain stylebook points were poorly founded in the first place. The last point has been well proven, and the concern for the dismissal of non-elite, non-central, non-neurotypical and second-language speakers is always relevant. Standard English is, however, still the only acceptable variety in many public written contexts, and for good reasons.
The rule systems that make us anxious as writers act in our favor when we are readers. It’s not that you can’t understand texts containing a lot of deviations, but it takes longer, as any teacher will tell you. The observation of conventions by writers permits us as readers to find information rapidly and concentrate on the message without being distracted by inconsistencies. It saves us from considering these very debates on grammar while we are trying to do something else. It establishes regularities that can then be broken for effect (e.g., “travel yourself interesting”). And for second language learners, the more standard a language appears, the easier it is to learn.
In Britain, it seems that style is never transparent and always distracts. Standard English is too often seen as someone else’s cultural capital, rather than a lingua franca; a more broadly enforced version of U and Non-U.  It took me a while to realize this, since in the United States, standard written English is treated as a technology, not an identity marker. A heartwarming large proportion of the population believes anyone can master it, the same way you master computer programming [1]. Richard Rodriguez has written movingly of learning English from nuns who wouldn’t take “I can’t” for an answer. The Oakland Ebonics controversy was about increasing funding to teach the standard to kids who already spoke another dialect of English; trying to empower them by treating them as bidialectal speakers and writers. When grammar teaching is done well, kids learn how to discuss grammar and ask questions about it. That’s important. Living in a time when almost everyone seems to write for the public, I can’t think of any language identity that would have done more for me in the great marketplace of life than “high school grammar geek.” I wouldn’t trade it. I want everyone to be able to have it. The new National Curriculum is a step toward that and so are public VLEs like Grammar Girl.

Last year’s Grammar Day gurus were quicker to make the turn from “liberation from grammar” to “grammar as liberation,” with the latter position forcefully argued by Debra Myhill and a foot kept in the former by Deborah Cameron and David Crystal. This year’s panel fetched up on the question of how much correction is enough: Can we distinguish between errors that are real barriers to “clarity” and those that are inkhorn inventions? They reached no conclusion, but one possible division is suggested by the examples they considered.  Errors involving grammatical words and inflectional endings – including the common apostrophe errors and subject-verb agreement [3] – produced stronger noises of disgust than errors in lexical words, such as imply/infer and disinterested/uninterested [4]. Perhaps that’s the bright line between noise that really disrupts the signal and noise that we may all, in time, learn to filter out.
[1] Including John Mullan and Bas Aarts of UCL, who did not give separate talks.
[2] Not all of the population believes this, note (cf. the work of Rosina Lippi-Green) The fallacy in the analogy is that we aren’t all good at programming either, and some people can do programming easily and essay writing hardly at all, and vice versa. But for a raw cross-nation comparison, I think it works. The formulation owes something to Emily Schultz’s discussion of why Whorf chose to use Native American examples rather than contrasting worldviews within English (Dialogue at the Margins: Bakthin, Whorf and Linguistic Relativity, Madison: UWisconsin Press, 1990).
[3] The comment in the photo at the top of the post should have written “A selection … is available” to fulfil subject-verb agreement.
[4] Such errors also have cross-linguistic analogues: most languages expect speakers to observe subject-verb agreement  and form genitives correctly in careful speech and writing. The more lexical distinctions (and yes I know it can be fuzzy) like “fewer/less,” however, don’t exist in all languages.
Posted on by Diana ben-Aaron
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