Friday, 18 May 2012

The Battle for Grammar

There was a time not very long ago when I used to feel very proud of my control over grammar. You know, your ears prickle when you hear an incorrect sentence, you have the ability to catch hold of the best way to express a thought and you’re able to correctly apply some of the more rigid rules (those that are less conducive to being explained through simple logic) of the Queen’s. I lived in a happy bubble. Even after turning incredibly lazy and occasionally spewing out a dirtier combination of easy-to-use phrases, I still turn red whenever I make a blatant error. I wasn't the only person to harbour a feeling of supremacy and quiet contentment. The number of grammar conscious people constantly increased in my circle and all was well.

Or so it seemed. Peers play a crucial role in moulding your tastes. I had no qualms about using SMS slang in chats and texts. I had no problem not using the proper sentence case while typing. Not until I experienced deep disapproval from my seniors that I changed my preferences and started looking down upon the lowly classes. “That guy writes ‘hawt’!” or “I can’t understand why they spell ‘kool’ when the original’s in four letters too”.  I was part of the elite, the Right, a protector of the sacrosanct ways of English. I could only generate sympathy for the other side in a good mood, and scorn otherwise.

Things started changing soon. For one thing, your friends are a mirror of your own self and I could see how I looked to the outside world- patronizing, insensitive and deluded. Besides, there was a limit to my desire of emulating my peers. As the years went by, I thought I had narrowed my view of the world. The argument that resulted from my mental meanderings was this: as long as you can convey your thoughts to the intended recipient does it actually matter if you use proper grammar? And who sets the rules anyway? If we had not digressed from the standards set by the pre-eminent linguists of the era we’d still be using old English. Shakespeare would have been convicted for gross sacrilege and hanged as he invented words on the go to suit his need and distorted verbs and tenses that go far beyond anything else done by a writer in the name of poetic license. Language is a living body; it reflects the pace and needs of our times. We might just end up with Newspeak. But the difference is that people aren’t being forced onto a newer language, we’re adapting it to our lifestyles. On the other hand, a Hagrid sort of a guy generally wouldn’t get a chance to speak at an international conference of leaders. His language may be a natural consequence of his environment but it’s like the FPS system. It’s good enough for the entire course of a person’s life but wouldn’t fetch him/her an entry into a science seminar where the de facto standard is the SI.

As it turned out, I didn’t have to search very far to receive a context to my tribulations. There is a raging debate going on in the academic world, the battle between the Prescriptivists and the Descriptivists.

A brief description is warranted. Precriptivists are the conservatives. They demand the need to define and regulate the form of language. There are rules and these must be followed to maintain the beauty of language and to keep out all forms of ambiguity or dilution of standards. A case in point is the difference between the use of “who” for the subject and “whom” for the object in a sentence. They say that rules are important to avoid chaos and to keep everyone in line (at the expense of losing those who couldn’t be inducted in the right way). Descriptivists are those who believe that rules are nothing but the current predominant state of usage. It’s enough for a child who learns a language from his environment and then uses it to communicate effectively with others. An emphasis on rules necessitates bias against certain dialects and forms. Language is a living system of internally consistent logic. Many of the rules, they say, have no basis in them. They are, to use Steven Pinker’s words, “old wives' tales”.

I mention Pinker’s name to stress that this is not a debate between the academics and the masses. It’s a battle that’s raging between the top psychologists and linguists of the world. A recent essay by Joan Acocella sparked off a skirmish between the two sections. On first glance and to an uninitiated mind the review is a lengthy discussion of the merits and fallacies of a recently published book. A more informed read tells you that the reviewer has launched a scathing attack on the decriptivists. It would have been all well too, except that Acocella makes several mistakes in her analysis. Consequently, her review has been lambasted  and ridiculed. You can’t launch an attack without knowing your terrain.

To my mind, the greatest difference between the two sides is the emphasis which they put on the role of rules in defining a language. It would be easy to state that a middle path is desired, one that allows language to evolve continuously but with the rules there in place to avoid confusion. It sounds simple. It isn’t. The hardest thing for an intelligent mind which has spent years on a problem is for it to concede or compromise. I don’t think rules are so important. I don’t find anything wrong with slang. Historically, truth and convention are defined by the majority. The day enough people regularly write hawt instead of hot will be the day it’s inducted into the dictionary.

Take it away, Bob:

For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There's a battle outside
And it is ragin'
It'll soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin'.


  1. True. I used to be very proud of my role as the Grammar Nazi in many a group, but things have started to change now... I try to remain strict with my own grammar but no longer do I give a damn about what other people say.

    I still wince, but I try to suppress them all the same. I suppose it's okay to err (though I do not see the point) as long as you still make a little bit of sense.

    1. I see what you mean. I think a lot of us experience that cringing feeling when we see an abnormal sentence. It's not wrong to know what is correct.

      That people don't care very deeply about grammatical propriety is also true. I don't think we can disapprove of it- maybe we've stagnated ourselves! We can't all welcome these changes but accept them, we must.

  2. Clarity and exact thinking needs a rich language with a great logical structure beneath it. This is not just about expressing yourself to others...this about the way you think. The debate you discuss in the post is old and great(and is relevant to other aspects of the language too).....and more imp right now than ever before....with these memes, slang etc developing thick and fast.
    This is an issue that intrigues me highly and i'll have to read up lot...pinker, chomsky, russel etc..before I will be qualified to comment on it. But till then, my stand on this debate is determined almost solely by :
    and an essay called New Words by Orwell...(i have a pdf of it, will mail it to you if you like..but i dint find a good link online on search page 1)
    I am not a grammar nazi myself, but i love being surrounded by them, (with my Dad being a GrammarHitler himself :)).

    1. Yeah I have read one of those essays. The "Politics" one, if I remember correctly, had several excerpts from dailies and magazines where he pointed out the dilution in stance or ambiguity/political correctness in meaning. It's somewhat related to the accusations currently leveled on the Economist. I think that's a slightly different concern there but highly relevant to our times still. Orwell was a classy guy. On an unrelated tone, I've always thought of how we think subconsciously- do we use a language? And does that mean babies can't think initially because they haven''t learnt one. Provocative comment. Thanks for that!

      Nice to know that your father is that particular about grammar. He must surely have been a great influence in developing your own proficiency in it. Though you wouldn't have realized it then. ;-)

  3. Aha....this should
    give you some answers.

  4. I believe that in your local milieu, where everyone has been educated with the same laid-down rules of grammar, it's justifiable to cringe at your friend if he chooses to forego on those rules, just to fit in the evolving 'kool' around.