Despite its reputation, grammar is colourful and fascinating. Now experts report a renewed interest in the subject
English language can be fun if it is well taught, and we may be experiencing a grammar renaissance. Photograph: Lucien Aigner/Lucien Aigner/Corbis
A 15-year-old boy made headlines last week after writing a passionate letter of complaint to Tesco regarding bad grammar on its bottles of orange juice. Tesco claimed it used the “most tastiest” oranges, rather than “tastiest”, “most tasty” or “distinctly average”.
The fact it was deemed newsworthy shows how rare it is to see enthusiastic pedantry at such a young age (especially if there’s no strong family history of it). But before any grammar enthusiasts get excited, he admitted language was not the only motivation – he expected some Tesco vouchers for his ordeal.
Grammar rarely makes headlines, and when it does it’s often due to conflict over something the size of an apostrophe. But there’s a much greater issue that needs addressing. We complain that children cannot construct a sentence as they used to, but this nostalgic attitude towards literacy abilities has always been around. What we need to focus on is grammar’s reputation among the young.
Last month I attended a talk on grammar. In the weeks leading up to it I told a few people and their reactions ranged from laughter to looks of disappointment to disbelief. It didn’t get much better at the talk, where the discussion often steered towards the fact that students find grammar boring.
We are supposedly most receptive to learning a second language in childhood. But when it comes to grammar, it’s difficult to imagine a typical group of 10-year-olds debating whether or not to precede a gerund with a possessive noun or pronoun.
It’s a challenge for anything to be accepted as “cool” among younger generations, but we’d need to worry less about the future of society if grammar could finally earn some street cred.
Its current sorry state can be ascribed to several reasons. The first and possibly most insidious barrier to grammar’s image is the trail of fear left behind by old-fashioned grammarians and their pedantic followers. Instead of explanations and advice, grammatical errors are often corrected with scorn and ancient rules. This can project a sense of inadequacy that isn’t conducive to learning, and perpetuates the misconception that grammar is black and white, right or wrong.
I don’t entirely blame them – the pleasure of finding a typo is unbeatable – but pedants should confine such self-righteous pleasures to the privacy of the home. For the unconfident learner, the best advice was given by William Strunk Jr, author of The Elements of Style, who is alleged to have said: “If you don’t know how to pronounce a word, say it loud.”
Grammar’s second barrier is the argument between prescriptivists and descriptivists, and the confusion this causes. I was taught never to put a comma after “and”, but what if I went to the shops with my parents, a sheep and a goat?
Outdated grammar rules are offputting when they create a barrier to clear communication. If I were to sneakily split an infinitive, would I not be understood? Grammar is instinctive. I never understood what it meant to enclose parenthetic phrases in commas, probably because it sounds too confusing, but I know to do it.
The third hindrance to grammar is its reputation. When we think of grammar we picture dusty textbooks, evil teachers holding canes and dry lesson plans. But grammar is colourful, and its ability to completely change the meaning of a sentence is fascinating.
The good news is that there have been a few small “cool” victories recently. YouTube channel jacksfilms regularly uploads “Your Grammar Sucks” videos for its 1.3 million subscribers. Perhaps the premise – laughing at grammatical errors – is one we should be steering away from, but it puts grammar in the spotlight.
Another example is the small victory for the word “selfie”, named Word of the Year last year by Oxford Dictionaries. A modern word that adds clarity in its own, self-obsessed way caught the attention of younger generations. If they can be excited about a word, grammar can’t be far behind.
Not everyone thinks grammar is doomed. Bas Aarts, professor of English linguistics at University College London, believes we are experiencing a grammar renaissance.
“Things have changed in recent years. Grammar was perceived as boring, but it was taught prescriptively and put people off. Language develops the way it wants to develop, and no amount of prescriptiveness will help. A lot of people who are against splitting the infinitive can’t even explain why.”
Aarts says the enjoyment of grammar depends on how it is taught. “There is a renewed interest in grammar, partly because of improved teaching, partly due to some very successful books on language.”
To test the grammar renaissance theory, I asked a class of primary school children to describe grammar in one word. Three said “interesting”, three said “helpful” and one said “boring”. I also asked a class of year 8 pupils: nine described it as “confusing”, two said “good” and the rest ranged from “useless” to “brilliant”. In another secondary school, the teacher said that, in his class, almost everyone said it was boring or dull, and a few said “pointless”.
The way we view grammar is subjective, and, as it turns out, the way we view how everyone else views grammar is also subjective. Perhaps grammar-lovers are just too uncool to know what’s cool.
But I do know anything trying to be cool is automatically uncool, and grammar shouldn’t have to try.Posted by
Friday 21 March 2014 05.00 EDT at The Guardian
Grammar Day 2014, presented by UCL and Oxford University in association with the British Library, will take place on Friday 4 July.