Friday, 6 December 2019

Who Needs English Grammar? Part II



English Grammar and Social Class

The unspoken subtext of English grammar is its connection with social class.  Traditionally, "proper English" meant whatever was used in the golden triangle formed by London, Cambridge and Oxford. As Tiger Webb explains, "in socially-stratified and newly literate Georgian England, any guide to 'proper language' would have sold like hotcakes"--which is exactly what happened with Robert Lowth's Short Introduction to English Grammar.  With the democratization of the language, a number of dialects, sociolects, idiolects and sublects emerged (there are a lot of lects out there--each with its own slight adjustments to the grammar).  David Crystal suggests that every Anglophone needs to know at least two Englishs:  one that is spoken locally and a second that is understood and accepted globally (or, at least, more widely).  (The local, more colourful version of English is the one more likely to be used in poetry and literature, by the way.)

With grammar, as with everything else in life:  there are choices to be made.  A pop icon or populist president might discover advantages in gainsaying the grammar of standard English in favour of a local dialect or patois.  On the other hand, scrupulous attention to the rules of prescriptive grammar might be the kind of branding with which you as an individual or your company or institution might want to be identified.

Beyond Fashion and branding, who does need English grammar?

Let us not be too quick to turn up our noses at branding and fashion.  In liberal, egalitarian societies, codes for dress as well as for language are invariably a source of protest. However, linguistic knowledge is stereotypically taken as a sign of general knowledge and intelligence (even if unwarranted).  Passing up the opportunity for respect, confidence and admiration which your grammar might impart (or undermine) isn't a wise decision--unless you are already a pop star or a president. Beyond fashion and making a good impression, there are practical reasons for knowing the grammar of the language which you speak.

Learning a foreign language

One of the strongest reasons for a native speaker to know the grammar of English is that it will facilitate the learning of a foreign language.  This is strictly anecdotal (not empirical evidence) but, having taught grammar to both native speakers and second-language learners, I noted that some native speakers were understandably reluctant to accept and even disbelieving that there were "rules" for something they had done naturally all their lives.  Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker both argue that language is innate, even genetic and instinctive, and that there is a universal grammar of all languages.  However, knowing the distinctive grammatical features of your first language is a huge advantage,  giving you parameters and a framework, as you take on a foreign language and can note its differences.  Conversely, I would add that you really don't know your own language until you have been required to learn another one.

Redundancy and entropy

The principle purpose of most grammar rules is to create redundancy.  Basic communication theory indicates that the greater the redundancy in a message the greater its clarity.  In oral communication, we use tone of voice, facial expressions, and gestures to reinforce the message.  In written communication we depend on grammatical features, subject-verb agreement, correct syntax, agreement between adverbs of time and the tense of the verb, and correct word type (see "What Is English Grammar?) to be doubly sure that our message will be clearly understood.  Consider some simple examples:

"I stopped there yesterday."  Here the past tense of the verb and the word "yesterday" are transmitting the same information; i.e., there is redundancy in the sentence.  The adverb "yesterday" makes it clear that the action was in the past.  The rules of grammar, which require the past tense of the verb plus the word "yesterday,  make it redundantly clear that the action was in the past. "I stop there yesterday," though ungrammatical, gets the message across.

"He is here."  The agreement between the third person subject "he" and the third person of the verb "is" is basically redundant.  "He are here" would transmit the same message but, in the absence of redundancy, with a touch of ambiguity.

When the message matters, the grammar matters

Legal documents are notoriously tedious to read.  They use more nouns than most writing, and avoid varying vocabulary, action verbs, adverbs and intensifiers.  In other words, they avoid all the features that make writing interesting.  They will also tend to be repetitive and redundant, strictly following the rules of grammar.  When clarity is of the utmost importance, grammar becomes important, even if (or because) it creates redundancy.

Grammar can change the message

As I pointed out in Part I, I am not partial to the "you're shit" versus "your shit" distinction as grounds for knowing English grammar.  However, there are subtle, refined distinctions in English messages that are transmitted through grammar.  Consider these pairs of sentences:

1. The less people know about us the better.

2. The fewer people know about us the better.

In #1 "less" applies to an uncountable abstract, the implied knowledge.

In #2 "fewer" applies to the countable "people."

1.  I'm going to see her tomorrow.

2.  I'll see her tomorrow.

In #1 "going to" implies a previous arrangement or understanding.

In #2 "will" does not carry the implication of an arrangement, and can be a spontaneous decision.

1.  I've seen that movie.

2.  I saw that movie.

In #1 "I've seen" (the present perfect tense) implies some effect on the present (i.e., "I don't want to see it again").

In #2 "saw" is past tense and neutral about the present. (see The Truth about English Verb Tenses)

Who needs English grammar?

Most English speakers will use these grammatical variations correctly without being aware or able to explain them.  I began these posts on "Who needs English grammar?" by pointing out that we impose grammar most on people who need it least.  At some point in the learning process, language learners will benefit from instruction in grammar, but that point is late in the process (See The Ball of String Theory).




My own rule of thumb for when to teach grammar in an ESL or EFL context was whenever a student asked a question about grammar.  Teachers of English need to know the grammar.  I'll go one step further and say that anyone who teaches anything in English needs to know English grammar.

"Yes, no, toaster"

I still remember watching a documentary series in Quebec entitled Yes, No, Toaster.  The expression "yes, no, toaster" was a typical comedic response from a young Quebec francophone to the question "Do you speak English?"  The documentary, which investigated the relative ineffectiveness of English language instruction in Quebec, was provoked by Audrey de Montingy, a finalist in Canadian Idol in 2003, who confessed that she couldn't understand a word of what people were saying to her during the show, even though she had had six years of ESL instruction.  The Yes, No, Toaster  series took cameras into various English-language-instruction settings.  The one that sticks with me (sticks in my craw, I should say) was an advanced class in which a student asked her teacher "What's the difference between 'will" and 'going to'?"  The teacher not only refused to answer but used the occasion to mock the student by saying "You're not ready for that level yet?"


The Moral of the story

The moral of the story I've been telling is that we should ensure that the right people are being criticized, and the right people are doing the criticizing.  Teachers mocking inquiring students; unilinguals criticizing polyglots--these are just plain wrong.

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