The UVic Writer's Guide


Forethoughts About Grammar


Grammar / Glamour . The words rhyme but otherwise might seem to have as little in common as any two words can have. What could be less glamorous than grammar ? Can you imagine a glossy monthly magazine called Grammar ? Yet the word glamour is a corruption of the word grammar and once meant magic of a verbal rather than a physical sort. And the magazine Glamour simply deals with language of a different kind, the self-communication created by our appearance.

The language of clothing requires you to put things together properly. Not everything matches; what you put together and the way you put it together will vary according to the kind of statement you are trying to make about yourself, but your ability to make a statement depends on others being able to read it. In different times or places, the same skirt length may be interpreted as risquŽ or demure, and a boy's short haircut may seem conformist or rebellious.

The language of speech is just as conventionalized and rule-bound as that of clothing, though its fashions change rather more slowly. While a great many fashion designers depend for their livelihood on the reluctance of the trendy to be seen in last year's styles, very few grammarians will become wealthy by pointing out that old words and phrases have become outmoded, obstacles in the way of effective expression.

But if beauty is in this sense grammatical, it is also true that there is a real glamour in knowing a language and using it well. Your ability to move easily among the complexities of English grammar is unquestionably among your most precious and hard-won skills. All human languages provide the communities that inhabit them with subtle and powerful tools for wooing, arguing, lying, instructing, and praying. English speakers may be tempted to think, like Stephen Dedalus, that the particular virtues of English are divinely ordained:

Dieu was the French for God and that was God's name too; and when anyone prayed to God and said Dieu then God knew at once that it was a French person that was praying. But, though there were different names for God in all the different languages in the world and God understood what all the people who prayed said in their different languages, still God remained always the same God and God's real name was God. (Joyce 16)

To us, English may seem a uniquely powerful tool for human creativity and communication. But only historical and geographical accidents have made this language the powerful medium of international exchange that it has become. And it is worth remembering that international linguistic currencies are subjected to a good many indignities. Witness the following examples:

* In a Belgrade hotel elevator:

To move the cabin, push button for wishing floor. If the cabin should enter more persons, each one should press a number of wishing floor. Driving is then going alphabetically by national order.
* A sign posted in Germany's Black Forest:

It is strictly forbidden on our black forest camping site for people of different sex, for instance, men and women, live together in one tent unless they are married with each other for that purpose.
* From a brochure of a car rental firm in Tokyo:

When passenger on foot heave in sight, tootle the horn. Trumpet him melodiously at first, but if he still obstacles your passage then tootle him with vigour.

* At a hotel in Athens:

Visitors are expected to complain at the office between the hours of 9 and 11 a.m. daily.

The people who put these sentences together evidently knew a certain amount of English grammar, and you can mostly understand what they are trying to say. However, they are clearly not the utterances of native speakers, because they do not abide by the rules native speakers of English follow when they put sentences together. If you have a native speaker's command of the language, you will have so thoroughly internalized the rules that you will have to make a conscious effort to disobey them.

In this respect, and it is the most important respect, you as a native speaker "know" English grammar. But if you were asked to explain to the sign-makers or brochure-writers of Istanbul and Valparaiso what is wrong with their attempts, could you do so? Could you, in other words, bring the rules by which you speak to the level of consciousness? The answer to this question will certainly be "no," unless you have been taught grammar.

You may, if you will pardon the paradox, know English grammar without knowing English grammar. You may be able to speak grammatically without being able to explain the rules by which you speak grammatically. This distinction is not the usual one between descriptive grammar , which tries to explain how grammar works, and prescriptive grammar which claims the right to tell you how you should speak.

The newspapers are full of the opinions of people who think that English is in a state of decline from which only a good dose of prescriptive grammar can save it. Such people tell us that we misuse words like "hopefully" and that we shouldn't talk about "contacting" others or split infinitives:

1Hopefully I will be able to quickly contact the police

is not a very elegant sentence, but most English speakers would consider it grammatically acceptable. The following example presents a different and more significant kind of problem:

2a If I could of, I would of.

The statement recorded here is one that most of us will have uttered at one time or another. It is by no means ungrammatical, but its recording is, for it misinterprets the standard spoken abbreviation:

2b If I could've, I would've,

which is short for

2c If I could have, I would have.

Example 2a is a logical spelling of the sound of what we say, but it betrays a lack of awareness of the way in which English grammar works. And although it may be true that the ability to formulate a sentence orally is the really crucial ability, while being able to render it correctly in writing is only of secondary importance, in a culture that depends on writing this second kind of grammatical control is immensely valuable. Unless you understand how English sentences work your ability to write will be severely impaired. If you are lucky your message will get through, but at a considerable cost to your credibility.


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Copyright, The Department of English, University of Victoria, 1995
This page updated Sept. 24, 1995