Thursday 21 April 2016

On 'grammar snobs'

Watch the journalist Mona Chalabi deliver an eloquent two-minute straight-to-camera piece for The Guardian online. The accompanying text reads:

Why is it that some people feel proud to be called a grammar snob? Mona Chalabi argues that those who correct others’ language are clinging to conventions that are unimportant. She says grammar snobbery is often used to silence those who have less of a voice in society.

I agree, more or less, with much of what Mona Chalabi has to say about social exclusion (although language expresses tribal allegiance throughout society, from the slick sound bites of your average politician to the torrential loquacity of rap lyrics), but I feel she makes a bad case so let me add what used to be called my' 'two penn'orth'. (And what follows will make more sense if you watch the short clip before reading this.)

With just two minutes in which to make her case Mona Chalabi makes no distinction between grammar, punctuation and vocabulary, and this is unfortunate. Like most people with strong feelings on such matters, she is not an expert but entirely confident that she is right. But she also makes no distinction between spoken and written language, or between the many registers within those two categories (formal/informal, for instance). Her assault on the anonymous cohort she labels 'grammar snobs' fails to gain traction and becomes a general complaint about how language is the property of one particular class. excluding 'those who have less of a voice in society'. 

It was Noam Chomsky (I think) who said that grammar is 'a set of complicated rules to which there are exceptions'. Exceptions are what 'prove' such rules (and 'prove' in this case always means 'to test to the point of destruction' rather than 'to confirm'). What we have instead of rules, as any linguist knows, are patterns - some of them high frequency, some not - although many people, vaguely remembering their schooldays, tend to think that such patterns are rules that cannot be negotiated. They are wrong.

Grammar 'rules' (i.e. high frequency patterns) are essential for:

a) learners of any foreign language
b) teachers of learners of any foreign language
c) writers creating learner support materials for learners and teachers of any foreign language

The 'rules' are a way in, a means by which non-native users can get an early handle on the language. Not by any means the only way, or even the best way, but certainly a way. An example might be the 'rule' (or established convention) surrounding the order of adjectives before a noun in English - we tend to write and say 'the little red engine' rather than 'the red little engine' because a high frequency pattern among native speakers is to place adjectives of size before adjectives of colour.  No big deal, but worth knowing if you're a teacher or a learner or anyone with an interest in how language works. A French student, for instance, would find the idea of a 'colour' adjective coming before the noun as rather outlandish, because in her language it's the opposite - le petit train rouge -  different pattern, see? 

Chalabi builds her case on assertions unsupported by evidence, and such assertions can equally be rejected without evidence. (As a data journalist she might be expected to know this.) She says, inter alia, (and the use of that commonplace Latin phrase will probably strike her as typically condescending and patrician but it's quicker  for me to type those two words than 'among other things', or would have been without this defensive digression) that:

"It was once considered incorrect to begin a sentence with 'and' or 'but''.

Really? That's news to me. Considered 'incorrect' by whom? When? Where's your evidence? Is it now considered correct? Again, if so, by whom? Are we invited to suppose that in this hypothetical period in the unspecified past nobody began an utterance with either word? Or is this only in relation to writing? In which case a quick sniff around will find plenty of examples from novelists who broke this and every other 'rule'. Or don't novelists count? I can find nothing in Fowler's Modern English Usage to support her claim (and while Fowler is not such an authority today he certainly was in the past).

Here's another assertion:

'What about the rule that the standard pronoun would be 'he''?

I see what she's getting at - but there was never any such rule, only a widely-observed style convention (still contested). There were guides to writing in which recommendations were made; Fowler's Modern English Usage was the standard reference for anyone working with the language, although Mona Chalabi seems to make no distinction between descriptive and prescriptive analyses of language, or (and again) between spoken and written forms. That all such conventions were observed or ignored by many literate people is another matter.

She next, having despatched the matter of grammar, tackles vocabulary and defends the commonplace use of 'literally' (not, surely, anything to do with grammar at all but, in common with 'like', a high frequency word among younger speakers, as in 'so I'm like . . ' instead of 'I said').  Chalabi attacks those hypothetical critics who object to its use. Fine, but her scattergun approach does her case no favours - she simply adds to a list of things she assumes annoy 'grammar snobs' (whoever they are) and insists that they are legitimate because - well, because that's how people talk (though not write, surely?). She defends the use of 'literally' as a kind of slipshod intensifier, which is just fine by me. I wouldn't correct speakers who adopt this commonplace trope ('I'm literally snowed under'), because I'm not a 'grammar snob' (whatever that is). I note the use, and ignore it - as one might ignore spinach on somebody else's teeth. The commonplace use of 'literally' has nothing to do with Chalabi's position - it's more to do with one generation's irritation at another's collective idiolect (and Mona Chalabi had better brace herself for what will happen to her idea of English in around thirty years' time)

She claims that 'grammar snobs' are sure to be 'older, wealthier, whiter' than those they criticise. This is another assertion without supporting evidence although I suspect she's right. Her view is illustrated by a library image of a white, bearded middle-aged man in bottle bottom glasses, thin-lipped with fury. So - by implication - are the grammar slobs (see what I did there?) likely to be younger, less wealthy and less white? Where does that get us?

Chalabi is presumably capable of writing and speaking English to a level of proficiency required by her profession. She has influence, and with this comes responsibility. That she smilingly makes a deliberate grammatical howler in her summing up ('the grammar what they say it with') is itself a condescension - she knows the form is 'wrong' but deploys it self-consciously to demonstrate her lack of affiliation to a simple rule - or pattern - informing the use of relative pronouns. Would she make such a 'mistake' in a written document? Would she find any editorial intervention in her writing a mark of the grammar snob? Or is she capable of recognising that other standards than her own may prevail and that she (like all of us) always has something new to learn about the management of the language?

By suggesting that there are no standards in written and spoken English against which effective communication can he measured, Mona Chalabi invites learners to be complicit in their own marginalization, to settle for less by ignoring attainable standards of appropriate speech and writing. And standard spelling, while we're at it. But that's another blog for another time.

Of the more than 2,000 responses to this online moment the majority (or to use the more usual formulation 'the vast majority') are hostile to Chalabi's point of view. This may tell you something about The Guardian's readership (traditionally seem as progressive, liberal/left-leaning and educated) or the use of provocation to increase the number of website visits - 'click bait', I believe it's called.

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