Grammar -What Is It Good For?


Towards the end of the eighteenth century the innocent, care-free days of English grammar were coming to an end. Grammarians had made strenuous efforts to “ascertain” the language and bring order to a riotous body of previously lawless syntax.

There were dissenting voices. Liberals like Joseph Priestley wrote in 1762 that it was “absurd” to set up anyone’s conversation “as the invariable rule” as “the custom of speaking is the only just standard of any language.” People, he reasonably thought, will carry on making up “what innovations they judge to be expedient and useful.”

He was a lone voice. Dr Johnson claimed his dictionary had “laboured to refine our language to grammatical purity, and to clear it from colloquial barbarisms, licentious idioms, and irregular combinations.”

By Jane Austen’s time the newly regimented language had produced a repertoire of deviant linguistic usage with which the author could occasionally satirise the failings of her characters.

By the twentieth century people were starting to question the legitimacy of grammar. Modernist avant-garde writer James Joyce famously decided to wage war on the English language. Of the 24,048 words in the final part of “Ulysses” there are only 2 full stops and 1 comma.

Writers like E.E. Cummings, William Faulkner and Samuel Becket continued to experiment.

Gertrude Stein claimed, “Punctuation is necessary only for the feeble-minded.”

Despite modernist and post-modernist experimentation a respect for grammar, syntax and punctation has remained an unavoidable part of professional writing. If, for example, a journalist makes a mistake (and a sub-editor misses it) a proportion of the readership will either write in or comment underneath the article.

Modern guides to authorship still advise learning from style books.

A manuscript submitted to a publisher that is full of playful grammatical errors runs the risk of being misunderstood – and rejected.

Many fiction writers, like Jane Austen before them, try and confine bad grammar to the reported speech of colourful characters.

It’s safer.

*If there are any grammatical errors in this blog post feel free to list them in the comments section.

An audio version of this blog is available here:

Author: Henry Anderson


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