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An interesting and polemic article
Thread poster: Lesley Clarke

Lesley Clarke  Identity Verified
Mexico
Local time: 02:59
Spanish to English
Mar 3, 2012

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/mar/02/no-correct-grammar-martin-gwynne

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Nicole Schnell  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 00:59
English to German
+ ...
I like to refer to grammar as dance steps Mar 3, 2012

They are, for example, based on this grammar rule:




And this is what a great translator and skilled writer can do with it:






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Ty Kendall  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 08:59
Hebrew to English
Nice dance steps Nicole ..... Mar 3, 2012

...unfortunately I have two left feet

Kidding aside, I feel that the article misses a trick in its attempt to trumpet the cause of descriptivism a bit too strongly.

Where it really falls down in my opinion is that it fails to clearly distinguish between spoken grammar(s) and written grammar.

To rally against the teaching of written grammar like this seems a little short sighted. Whether you like it or not, to be able to express your thoughts coherently and cohesively in writing requires at least a passing familiarity with written grammar....just as being able to construct sentences and conduct conversations requires the "rules" (a dirty word - so "conventions" maybe?) of spoken grammar which you spend your infancy and childhood acquiring.

Very few people would seriously suggest applying the rules of written grammar to speaking, the result would be either stilted or silly.

In a nutshell, there's no need to demonize the teaching of written grammar as some old fashioned throwback or as only being of interest to elitists. There's a place and function for both types of grammars.

[Edited at 2012-03-03 10:47 GMT]


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neilmac  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 09:59
Spanish to English
+ ...
Saved me some keystrokes Mar 3, 2012

Ty Kendall wrote:
To rally against the teaching of written grammar like this seems a little short sighted. ...
Very few people would seriously suggest applying the rules of written grammar to speaking, the result would be either stilted or silly.

In a nutshell, there's no need to demonize the teaching of written grammar as some old fashioned throwback or as only being of interest to elitists. There's a place and function for both types of grammars.

[Edited at 2012-03-03 09:06 GMT]


My thoughts exactly. You can clearly see where the author's bias lies. A non-starter debate IMHO.


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Neil Coffey  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 08:59
French to English
+ ...
Teaching of written grammar... Mar 3, 2012

Ty Kendall wrote:
To rally against the teaching of written grammar like this seems a little short sighted. Whether you like it or not, to be able to express your thoughts coherently and cohesively in writing requires at least a passing familiarity with written grammar....just as being able to construct sentences and conduct conversations requires the "rules" (a dirty word - so "conventions" maybe?) of spoken grammar which you spend your infancy and childhood acquiring.


Well... (and I think this is the point being made in the second-to-last paragraph) this is actually debatable. There's a *perception* among some that it's vitally important to invent and teach some prescriptive "grammar rules" otherwise nobody will be able to express themselves, the world will end etc etc... but there's not actually terribly much hard, scientific evidence for this.

There may also be some circularity in the definition of the problem: when people say "this sentence isn't clear" what they may actually mean is "this sentence, although its intended meaning is perfectly transparent, doesn't fit in with my preconceived notion that prescriptive rule X must be followed".


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Neil Coffey  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 08:59
French to English
+ ...
P.S... Mar 3, 2012

Like the author of the article, I'm not suggesting that people shouldn't train and practise their writing skills.

But what I'm contesting (like the author of the article) is that such training requires specifically the invention, teaching and enforcement of prescriptive rules, rather than simply a more general process of learning to 'think about what one is writing'.


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Ty Kendall  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 08:59
Hebrew to English
It's not about the world ending... Mar 3, 2012

...I'm also not suggesting that would happen, but articles like this always seem to insinuate that knowledge of (even prescriptive) grammar rules is somehow a bad thing.

Firstly, not all prescriptive grammar is nonsense (not ending sentences with prepositions and its ilk surely are utter rubbish) but let's not tar all these rules with the same brush.

Secondly, I see nothing wrong with providing access to the knowledge in a proper context. Once they are made aware of it, people can either choose to follow, flout or forget the "rules", for whatever reason.


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Neil Coffey  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 08:59
French to English
+ ...
Teaching *about* prescriptive suggestions Mar 3, 2012

Ty Kendall wrote:
...I'm also not suggesting that would happen, but articles like this always seem to insinuate that knowledge of (even prescriptive) grammar rules is somehow a bad thing.

Firstly, not all prescriptive grammar is nonsense (not ending sentences with prepositions and its ilk surely are utter rubbish) but let's not tar all these rules with the same brush.


I think you could be right that that gets insinuated. But from what he actually says, I think he is specifically objecting to is the labelling of certain uses as being "correct", "ungrammatical" etc on the basis of prescriptive rules. Or in other words, taking prescriptive rules to somehow be "the absolute truth that must be followed" rather than simply a list of personal preferences and suggestions on the part of a particular author or commentator which an individual may choose to adopt or ignore.

Now, I think there is also the problem that the vast majority of actual prescriptive grammar rules and style guide recommendations are in fact nonsense on some level or other, either because they're based on flawed grammatical analysis, or because they misuse evidence (a typical methodology of style guides, for example, is to quote examples from writing that "break" their rules and then use this to say that the writing is bad, when in fact the existence of writing from respected authors that "break" their rules actually undermine the rationale behind those rules), or because they pretend that evidence exists when it doesn't (e.g. the mysterious knowledge from some unknown source that people "find the passive hard to understand"). Typically, the actual framework for such material is also simply outdated. (It's curious that we wouldn't dream of teaching chemistry using a 19th century model of the atom, but it's fine to use a 19th century model for teaching syntax...)

[By the way, I think in principle you could devise a prescriptive grammar or style guide that is not based on flawed logic, not based on an outdated model of syntax and which doesn't misuse or fabricate evidence-- just that in reality, one has yet to appear as far as I can see.]

If you are going to teach from material that is based on flawed logic and misuses and fabricates evidence, then you need to be very very careful about how you go about using it as teaching material. Presenting such material as representing absolute truth is clearly unacceptable (yet I suspect is still how such material tends to be used in practice). Now you could well use such material as the focal point for an interesting discussion about the flaws in the author's analysis and methodology, the merits of adopting their suggestions etc. But in that case, there's a point at which you may as well 'cut out the middle man' and discuss the relative merits and effectiveness of features of real-life pieces of writing.


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Ty Kendall  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 08:59
Hebrew to English
Have to agree there.... Mar 3, 2012

Neil Coffey wrote:
Typically, the actual framework for such material is also simply outdated. (It's curious that we wouldn't dream of teaching chemistry using a 19th century model of the atom, but it's fine to use a 19th century model for teaching syntax...)


I agree with much of what you said but this in particular.

There are some 'translators' I am acquainted with who forever trot out 18th/19th century authors to justify "correct" usage in English with no consideration that despite coming from an esteemed author (Emily Brontë et al), it doesn't necessarily mean that their usage reflects accepted or appropriate usage now i.e. it seems to escape their grasp that language might have moved on over the past 200 years.

[Edited at 2012-03-03 14:26 GMT]


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Phil Hand  Identity Verified
China
Local time: 15:59
Chinese to English
Use of bad prescriptive grammar to discriminate Mar 3, 2012

In theory I could agree with Ty that it can't be bad to learn that these rules exist. The problem is that prescriptive grammar (among other language preferences, e.g. accent) has been used to discriminate. I've read lots of articles which deploy sneering comments about how so-and-so dares use double negatives, rather than actually engage with so-and-so's arguments. And I've read lots of beautifully turned-out editorials which are just pure arsemuffin - cf. the Telegraph's recent endorsement of literally disenfranchising the poor. So there's a guilt-by-association reflex that makes me want to steer well clear of prescriptive grammar.
More importantly, non-prescriptive, accurate descriptions of language are in very short supply. What worries me most about prescriptive grammar is that people learn it without a framework of proper knowledge to put it into - so the prescriptive grammar ends up being the framework.


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Lesley Clarke  Identity Verified
Mexico
Local time: 02:59
Spanish to English
TOPIC STARTER
Glad I posted this Mar 3, 2012

I posted this just before going to bed and have woken up to find this vibrant discussion.

As a translator I can see the need for grammar rules- for example, I had to translate a doctoral thesis by someone who misused the comma to the point that her writing was unintelligible - , yet as a member of society I find the way people are put down for speaking their local variation of a language very irritating.

It is a fine line.


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Ty Kendall  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 08:59
Hebrew to English
This is one point I was trying to make... Mar 3, 2012

Phil Hand wrote:
What worries me most about prescriptive grammar is that people learn it without a framework of proper knowledge to put it into - so the prescriptive grammar ends up being the framework.


...When I said about presenting certain grammar knowledge "in the proper context".

For example, teaching about split infinitives and that the ridiculous rule which attempts to proscribe it is useful to know, as long as you are also informed that there are few linguistic reasons why you shouldn't split them if you want to - as the rule most likely originated from Latin/Latinate languages where it is literally impossible to split an infinitive the same way given that infinitives in these languages consist of a single word.

When armed with the full picture it's quite hard for others to use prescriptive grammar to discriminate or to stigmatize i.e.
A: You're using double negatives...How barbaric!
B: Well, maybe that's because I don't believe that rules of formal logic or maths apply to languages. Even if the long dead Bishop Robert Lowth decreed it so.


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Neil Coffey  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 08:59
French to English
+ ...
Split infinitive... Mar 3, 2012

Ty Kendall wrote:
For example, teaching about split infinitives and that the ridiculous rule which attempts to proscribe it is useful to know, as long as you are also informed that there are few


What I love about the split infinitive rule is that it neatly encapsulates several levels of nonsensical thinking in to one succinct piece of nonsense. It's not even entirely clear what problem it was originally supposed to be solving and doesn't solve any obvious problem today-- if anything the rule is liable to introduce ambiguities that otherwise wouldn't have existed if people just used the form that came naturally to them.

And yet... people bang on about it. There was even a piece on Newsnight a couple of months ago about it.


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Ty Kendall  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 08:59
Hebrew to English
After having a dad obsessed with Star Trek... Mar 3, 2012

...I grew up never flinching when I encountered split infinitives, I was so used to hearing "To boldly go..." on an almost daily basis.

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Russell Jones  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 08:59
Italian to English
A relevant article Mar 3, 2012

I've been looking for a suitable opportunity to share this (by Oliver Kamm, The Times, 6 September 2011).

Understanding how words fit together to form sentences enriches the life of the mind.
Grammar is not a science. It is a body of agreements, like law or the rules of chess, about the meaning of words and the forms they take when combined. Writers broadly adhere to these conventions to understand each other better. If those agreements did not exist, there would necessarily be others in their place.
Language of course evolves. Over the very long term, Charles Darwin's theory of descent with modification to explain the origin of species is fascinatingly apt in explaining also the origin of languages. Even in a short time, a convention about language may become so disregarded that it no longer applies. But in general, it’s a good thing if the pace of change is not so rapid that the literature of previous generations becomes obscure. Modern readers are fortunate in being able easily to make sense of Shakespeare, because our conventions have enough in common with his.
Understanding grammar is not about rote learning. Grammar is a tool that, once grasped, is empowering. It enables you to talk to any audience without being dismissed or patronised because of the way you write or speak.
Grammar gains a hearing for your ideas, allowing them to be judged on their merits. When you learn a foreign language, you can’t do it merely by memorising a list of words. You need to know how the words combine and how their relation to each other alters their form. It’s no different with your native tongue.
My philosophy of grammar is far from original. As Kingsley Amis once put it, in a review of a book on English usage: “This book is founded on a principle taken for granted by most writers and readers since time immemorial: that there is a right way of using words and constructing sentences and plenty of wrong ways.”


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