Language Lounge

A Monthly Column for Word Lovers

I May Not Know Grammar, But I Know What I Like

About six weeks ago, and very unusually, the name Robert Lowth appeared on subsequent days in two different media outlets. The first was on February 12, when Chi Luu, writing in JSTOR Daily ("where news meets its scholarly match") mentioned Lowth in her article Black English Matters. The next day, "Johnson", who writes on language for the Economist, devoted much of their column to observations on the unfortunate habit of disparaging others for their failure to model "proper" English.

Robert Lowth - via ArtUK

Lowth was a pathfinder in the activity of criticizing others' language use and he seems to have licensed that activity to all of us English speakers who have come after him. It's hard to know if there's a connection between these near simultaneous contemporary mentions of Lowth in the media, but it's interesting to note that a now largely forgotten poet, scholar, and bishop of the Church of England should spring luridly to life, even if only briefly.

Lowth is noteworthy for authoring an influential (though often misguided) prescriptive textbook, A Short Introduction to English Grammar (published in 1762). But he is remembered as being the archetype of a cultural role that is still with us today: the grammar nazi. That may seem like an oddly inappropriate epithet but it has found a niche in usage (witness nearly 7 million hits in Google). That is probably because it gives us a way to characterize a single individual who belongs to the nebulous force of grammar police (a staggering 77 million+ hits in Google).

Whence arises the motive in human nature to harshly judge the grammatical missteps of others and to suggest that such failings constitute anything worse than a peccadillo or forgivable frailty? It's especially odd that the habit persists when many such judgments arise not because the targeted utterance or usage is ungrammatical or incorrect, but rather because the one who judges it has a deficit in knowledge or understanding.

I am reminded of an observation made by Lady Susan, an early Jane Austen character: "Where there is a disposition to dislike, a motive will never be wanting." Dislike provides an atmosphere in which criticism arises easily. Criticizing the substance of someone's speech or writing may require careful thought and analysis, and it runs the risk of exposing the critic's own prejudices. Criticizing someone's style, on the other hand, is conveniently easy and ideally reflects nothing on the part of the critic other than their watchful editorial eye and their superior knowledge of language. Or so the critic would hope.

The conditions under which we produce speech today are remarkably little changed from the 18th century: By way of a nearly miraculous coordination of muscles in the throat, mouth, and lips, we convert a flow of air into highly varied and subtly different sounds. These issue from our mouths and are decoded as complex messages by those who hear them. Nothing has changed the easy functioning of this astonishing mechanism in the 300 years since Lowth pondered English grammar.

The way we communicate in writing today, however, is vastly changed. The 18th century had handwriting and the possibility of transforming a tiny fraction of handwriting into a permanent record by way of the laborious process of typesetting and printing. Today, we carry around computers in our pockets that can instantly transform our speech into captured text. We also have fairly reliable writing aids built into all of our devices that will remind us when we are misspelling a word and warn us that we may have committed a grammatical error. Our pocket, laptop, and desktop devices can even suggest to us a form of words to complete an expression that conforms to the way thousands of others have done this in the past, thus assuring us that what we might say at least has the imprimatur of precedent. In light of these technological advances, should we be less tolerant of our fellow speakers' failures to model language correctly?

I would say no, because I don't think it was ever a very good idea to make someone's (mis)use of language a basis for criticism. But there's an even better reason to desist when you would call attention to what you perceive as a misuse, or a slip of the tongue or pen; you might just be wrong, and in any case you will probably not be perceived as someone we all ought to listen to.

A great advantage that we moderns have over Bishop Lowth and his descendants in temperament is the advances that linguistics and dialectology made in the 20th century and continue to make today. It's now accepted, on the basis of evidence in the great volumes of captured text we now have, that dialects within a language vary considerably in lexis, grammar, and syntax. So the "right" and uniformly consistent way of saying something in a particular dialect may not agree with the way you say it or the way you approve of. That doesn't make it wrong; it just makes it different.

This seems to be an especially hard pill to swallow for speakers of a language's most prominent or most prestigious dialects. In the UK, that would be something along the lines of RP combined with British SE. In the United States, it would be GenAm, preferably in a relatively unmarked accent, like the Midland one. Whatever virtues speakers of these prominent dialects may be deficient in — education, understanding, or compassion, for example — they seem to perceive themselves superior in the matter of language, and thus qualified to judge usages that fall outside what they know to be correct and proper.

We'll all be doing each other a great favor by paying most of our attention to the substance of what others say, least attention to the way they say it. The latter is a matter of great interest to linguists, dialectologists, phonologists, and other earnest students of language; but it should not present more than a point of passing interest to others.

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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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Comments from our users:

Friday April 3rd, 4:07 PM
Comment by: Jan S. (Brookline, MA)
So glad are I this words from youse to read.
Most others disenjoys me hard-writ screed.
Friday April 3rd, 5:14 PM
Comment by: David C. (Marietta, GA)
I love Jan S's poem. It says it all. Or at least half of it.

Obviously, grammar is little more than agreements for communication, groupthink that can be voted out as easily as Pluto's planethood.

When we read, a knowledge of the agreements allow us to predict what's coming next. Without the agreements, reading becomes unpredictable and laborious, just as it is to those beginning readers who still rely on spoken language to try to predict written language. It don't always work.

Style manuals have their place.

Grammar is not, however, necessarily related to character any more than enjoying reading is necessarily related to character. Reading avoidance can as easily be related to dyslexia or eyestrain.

Your advice, Orin, to pay "most of our attention to the substance of what others say, least attention to the way they say it" is sound (actually it's print). Overlooking grammar certainly applies to the majority of our social interactions. In business, for instance, the color of one's money ranks high above the color of one's speech or prose (except when it comes to contracts.

Grammar is also about power. If you ain't got grammar, you ain't going to have much power in New York literary circles. Thus, altering grammar, may also be used as a tool of revolution. To attack the style manual is to attack with a view of displacing the style of those who agree with the manuals. In fact, Jan S could well be a budding revolutionary at heart. Perhaps one worth following.
Wednesday April 8th, 8:30 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks, both, for your comments. Jan, I also love your poem!
Wednesday April 15th, 10:41 AM
Comment by: Rita H.
First, I must alert you that I am a speech pathologist, which borders upon being a linguist, and, therefore, I do have a deep interest in how grammar affects the message. This is the most critical point. The ability to "pay attention to the substance" of what another is saying is often dependant upon grammar. The differrence between verb tenses is important because it sets the time of an event. The difference between negatives and positives may be critical to whether or not an event will take place. Now, it is true that the difference between usage of the the words rregardless and regardless might be a find point, the same is not true of consequently and inconsequently. Yes, one must allow for regional differences and the differences of a second language speaker of a language, but such differences often cause the listener to come to conclusions, maybe erroneous conclusions, about the speaker. This is related to the fact that people do judge upon appearance and speech (see Malcolm Gladwell's books) whether or not they think they do. I get the substance in this message that one of mmy students just posted, "We was together 5 months." but I also get another message about him. (I do have much more than this one message upon which to judge, but this is a quick, pertinent example. My bottom line here is that grammar both affects and carries much substance and with no attention to it, the substance of the message may be totally misunderstood.
Wednesday April 15th, 10:42 AM
Comment by: Rita H.
and, of course, I meant irregardless and regardless! That's a point for re-reading before posting!
Thursday April 16th, 8:43 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
I agree largely with what you say, Rita, but you are barking up a tree that I am not perched in. Substituting "consequently" for "inconsequently" (e.g.) or using a verb tense that inaccurately represents an event is not a grammatical error; it's an error in substance and due more to carelessness than to dialectal variations in grammar.
Thursday April 16th, 10:51 AM
Comment by: Don H. (Brentwood, CA)Top 10 Commenter
That was good.

People who feel a need to correct the grammar of others doubtless tend to be judgmental in other contexts, as well.

You wouldn't want to serve them a meal without making sure each of the pieces in their table setting was in its proper position.
Thursday April 16th, 4:13 PM
Comment by: Rita H.
Okay, Orin, I do agree with you. It is just that in my particular work with high school students, I do tend to see grammmar as it affects substance. I certainly agree, however, that dialect differences are a different matter.
Sunday April 19th, 9:38 AM
Comment by: John M. (Coventry, RI)
amen and amen
Monday April 20th, 1:17 PM
Comment by: Arturo NY (KATONAH, NY)
I am not a scholar. So please be kind. But I do believe that grammar, and form, are part of the substance of what others say. When an otherwise trusted news caster uses the word "normalcy" I shudder. When a politician responds
to a journalist's question with "Now let me be clear..." alarm bells sound in my credibility vault. These are not grammatical mistakes. Still they are substantial to the message
Wednesday April 22nd, 12:33 PM
Comment by: Vern H. (Brampton Canada)
You disappoint me. I looked over your script, and not one single error. I did however complain to you one time about a word-of-the-day posting that had a number agreement issue. Your gentle humorous response made me reflect with a smile on how petty I’d been, but in my defense, I’d become exasperated in my job proofing news script with only minutes till publication, and consistently finding number agreement errors amongst other errors. I believe it is incumbent on professional writers to write professionally no matter the deadline pressures, and not depend on some poor drudge somewhere down the assembly line like me. Sometimes, there are too many errors to correct in time. Imagine being a live on-camera news reader, voicing inadequately vetted raw script from a prompter, and having to correct grammar on the fly. Without stumbling. Not for the faint of heart, for sure.
Though I do heartily agree with most of your sentiment, I am one of those annoying individuals that has difficulty accurately inferring the nuggets of grammatical ambiguities. Combine that with deficient hearing, and I’m a regular riot at socials. The way I understand it, language is the process of disambiguation, of clarifying the murk. That’s the whole point. I wouldn’t expect everyone to be a Northrop Frye fan, but I believe we can and should try to hold ourselves to a higher standard if for no better reason than to help poor schmoes like me, who are confused enough already.
And regarding Lady Susan’s astute observation, “Where there is a disposition to dislike, a motive will never be wanting,” another permutation of that statement is the use of ad hominem in debate. I sometimes engage in political debate when acquaintances say things that I object to. Usually, the first rebuttal I receive is a critique of my linguistic style, not anything to do with the argument. So, where there is a disposition to ad hominem, revelation will never go wanting.
Dr. Whom
Thursday April 23rd, 8:43 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks, Vern. In practice, I believe I am more like you than my column might imply because I am also in the business of constantly reading and listening to English (from university students) that falls short of that higher standard. And I think there are newsreaders on air who are not even aware of the error that the copyeditor missed.
Friday April 24th, 9:59 AM
Comment by: David C. (Marietta, GA)
Grammar is a set of group agreements to make sharing ideas easier. When the agreements hinder rather than aid communication they become less useful. The dialect, as Orin points out, is less important than the idea.

Grammatical agreements vary by group. One group would be those who follow a particular style manual. If we want to play with and be accepted by this group, we follow the agreements in the manual.

We can deviate from the agreements for various reasons. I generally deviate because of carelessness or ignorance. When I do so, group members are right to assume I'm careless or ignorant--at least of the grammatical agreements. Rita's work in this area, is appreciated.

Whether or not I have something to say could, as Orin suggests, outweigh my ignorance. Or not. My ignorance of the agreements, however, says little about my understanding or ignorance about living. Were I to select an auto mechanic based on their grammar, I might cheat myself out of a smoothly running automobile. The same could even be true of selecting a politician.

Grammar, of course, can also be political. If the style manual helps dictate whose ideas have power, then the grammar is to that extent political. If knowingly attacking the style manual is an attempt to shift who has power, the attack is also political. A grammatical revolution might signal an attempted political revolution as well.

Ideas may be diced because of faulty grammar, but to dismiss ideas because of faulty grammar is dicey. Which would your prefer: something said poorly, or nothing said well? Or there is always the present post: nothing said poorly.
Saturday April 25th, 12:35 PM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks, David. I do not agree with your conclusion! Substance and style both admirable.

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