April 06, 2004

Grammar Gods

Grammar God!
I am a Grammar God. I received this designation by taking this grammar quiz. The results do not include one's actual score on the twenty questions, but I must have done well to be designated a Grammar God.

The quiz tests your knowledge of traditional prescriptive grammar, the sort of thing that fussy English teachers used to worry about and that some pundits still do. Some of the questions deal with dialectal and register variation. For example, one gives you a choice between sneaked and snuck as the preterite of sneak. Another dealt with the dreaded hypothetical: If I were going to go there, .... You're not supposed to say was instead of were. As it happens, I speak a dialect of English that is very conservative in some areas and this comes naturally to me, but I suspect that the great majority of English speakers naturally say was.

Some questions didn't really have to do with grammar at all, but with spelling. One called for the correct spelling of the possessive form of Chris. Is it Chris', Chris's, Chrises etc.?

What shows how silly this sort of thing is is the question about shall and will. There is some nonsense in school grammar about when to use which, so that, if I recall correctly, you are supposed to say things like:

Shall I go to the store, or will you?
My colleagues with expertise in English, such as Geoff Pullum, may be able to elucidate this further, but as I understand it, no naturally occurring variety of English has ever followed the rule with which the prescriptivists plague us. It is completely artificial, and unlike some artificial rules, does not even serve a useful purpose, such as avoiding ambiguity.

Along with the designation of Grammar God I received this encomium:

If your mission in life is not already to
preserve the English tongue, it should be.
Congratulations and thank you!
The author of this quiz probably has good intentions, but I'm afraid that my mission in life is not "to preserve the English tongue". For one thing, it doesn't need saving. English is spoken natively by hundreds of millions of people and as a second language by hundreds of millions more. I'll devote my efforts to languages that are actually endangered, such as the native languages of British Columbia.

Of course, the author may be concerned with the preservation of the English language in another sense. He or she probably has the idea that to the extent that prescriptive rules are not followed, the language is somehow deteriorating. Languages actually do deteriorate. There are phenomena associated with language death, a subject developed most prominently by Nancy Dorian, in which the grammar is simplified, the sound system is modified, and most importantly, the vocabulary becomes restricted as the situations in which the language is used become fewer and fewer. But this is something that happens to dying languages, not languages like English that are growing. By any real measure of linguistic vitality or expressiveness, it makes not the slightest difference whether you use will or shall according to prescriptive rules or how you spell the possessive form of words ending in <s>. It is silly to think that English is in need of preservation because people don't follow arbitrary rules.

The relationship between language and thought is a topic that linguists usually avoid but is dear to everyone else. In spite of all the controversy over the subtleties, the most important aspect of this relationship is clear and uncontroversial:

No matter how well you express yourself, if you don't think clearly, what you say won't make sense.

Prescriptive grammar has very little to do with maintaining the clarity and precision of the language. What it really has to do with is maintaining the dominance of the upper classes and enforcing social norms. It used to be that only the wealthy had access to the kind of education that would provide knowledge of the particular type of English enshrined in the prescriptive standard, so discriminating against people who did not command this type of English helped to preserve class distinctions and to keep the lower classes in their place by making them believe that because they spoke differently they were inferior. This isn't as true as it once was, but the idea persists. Prescriptive grammar is a tool of the kleptocracy.

Posted by Bill Poser at April 6, 2004 12:27 PM