Saturday 5 September 2015

The Truth about English Grammar

The “joke” below about the distinction between “can” and “may” crossed my Facebook feed a couple of times this week.  The last time I heard this joke I was around 10 years old, meaning more than 50 years ago, so I am a little bit more than surprised that anyone today would comment on the distinction between “can” and “may” in making polite requests, or even think that such a distinction exists.  Nonetheless the post has received tens of thousands of likes and shares.

After nearly 40 years of teaching English Language and Literature, I think I can say, based on my own authority and that of most grammar books published in the last three or four decades, that if there ever was a polite-request distinction between “can” and “may” it disappeared at least 40 years ago. 

I have a strong suspicion that the reason this kind of false distinction persists is that if you press a less-than-fully competent teacher of English or uninformed speaker of the language to explain the difference between say “going to” and “will” or between “have seen” and “saw” or between “a few” and “a number of” they will retreat into pure nonsense claims that one is more “polite and formal” than the other.  Euphemisms and dysphemisms notwithstanding (see the Sour Glossary for definitions), the distinction between polite and less polite grammar disappeared from English usage in the 16th century with the abandonment of the distinction between “you” and “thee”  (the equivalents of the French “vous” and “tu”).  “Thee,” “thou” and “thine” persisted in prayers, bible translations and poetry, specifically because these words had disappeared from common usage and being rarefied seemed special and more poetic.  Ironically, "thee," "thou," and "thine" are the less polite, less formal and deferential forms but the most typical way that Christians address God.

Register is an important concept in linguistics.  The concept reminds us that different words and expressions fit better in particular contexts.  The language you use with your grandparents will likely be different from the language you use with your friends. If the context is legal or scientific or formal we expect to hear words and expressions that fit that particular context, but the idea that certain common grammatical expressions, particularly modal auxiliaries like “can,” “should,” “may,” might,” “will” and so on, can be distinguished from one another on the basis of politeness is simply wrong.

This being said, the truth about “correct” English grammar is that it is simply a collection of the most recently accepted errors.  Just about anything that is now considered “good English” was a mistake at some point in history.  You know all those words in English that end in “e” (like “bite,” “kite,” “courage,” “wide”):  we were supposed to pronounce those final “e”s, but since most people in the 16th century were mistakenly leaving them silent, the silent final “e” became the correct thing to do.  It’s an idea worth keeping in mind if you have ever had your self-esteem battered by a know-it-all grammar mavin, and based on the vitriolic responses to the above post, it seems like a lot of people have. 

Based on these comments, you might think I am opposed to grammar.  On the contrary, I think the posting above proves that we need to re-introduce grammar instruction into the school system.  The problem with the above posting (beyond satirizing a problem that hasn't existed for 40 years) is that it mistakenly describes "Can I borrow . . ." as a "colloquial" irregularity.  It isn't.  Grammar is constantly changing and at this point in time, "Can I borrow a pencil?" is correct standard English.

Tuesday 1 September 2015

Will the Government Use C-51, Anti-Terrorism Legislation, to Track Canadian University Students with Outstanding Loans?

Ottawa has instructed the Canadian Revenue Agency (CRA) to be more aggressive in collecting outstanding student loans.   According to the Globe and Mail:

The Government annually has to write off some of the $16 billion owing in student loans for a number of reasons:  a debtor may file for bankruptcy, the debt passes a six-year legal limit on collection, or the debtor can’t be found.  (B2, 31 Aug 2015)
For more detail on how the government has disallowed University graduates from declaring bankruptcy and extended the 6-year limit to 15 years, see my earlier post  When Should You Repay Your Student Loan? How about . . . Never!  However, the real cause (“90% of cases”) of non-payment is that CRA has lost track of student borrowers because “the CRA wasn’t allowed to ask other departments for help because of privacy laws” (B2, 31 Aug 2015).

What the Globe article doesn’t mention is the possibility of using C-51, anti-terrorism legislation, to solve the problem.  In case you have forgotten, the official title of the legislation is the “Security of Canada Information Sharing Act” and the purpose of the Act is 


You might not think of a Canadian University grad with a student loan as a terrorist, but that’s because you have forgotten how the Conservative Government has used C-51 to re-define terrorism.  Here, unabridged, is how C-51, which is now law, defines terrorism:

The following definitions apply in this Act.Definitions“activity that undermines the security of Canada” means any activity, including any of the following activities, if it undermines the sovereignty, security or territorial integrity of Canada or the lives or the security of the people of Canada:interference with the capability of the Government of Canada in relation to intelligence, defence, border operations, public safety, the administration of justice, diplomatic or consular relations, or the economic or financial stability of Canada;
With students currently owing $16 billion in loans, and a good chunk of them refusing to pay up (28% in 2004, 13% in 2014), guess what!  They are potentially interfering with “the economic or financial stability of Canada” and therefore qualify as terrorists under C-51.

Both the Conservative and Liberal Parties are in favour of C-51, only the NDP has promised to repeal this legislation.

"Three Days of the Condor" and the Tenth Anniversary of "The Sour Grapevine"

Sharing Intelligence I'm still obsessing over " sharing intelligence ."  May 15th was the tenth anniversary of this blog.  I w...