My name is Bob and I am a grammar Nazi. Or, at least, I was. And having confessed my sins, I solemnly promise to not, under any circumstances, worry about splitting my infinitives. I will exhort my English students to ensure their work has less mistakes, not fewer. You see, this is pedantry up with which I will no longer put.
This is no Damascene conversion. It probably began with a pub argument some years ago over whether it should be a historic or an historic (it should be the former, I think, because the h is not silent, as it is in, say, honourable – an honourable decision). At the time, I defended my grammatical usage robustly and firmly, because it is important to be right, isn’t it? And good grammar gets you laid, apparently, according to one eloquent Guardianista, although I found precious little evidence of this at my alma mater. While I was loudly declaiming my reasoning for championing one usage over another, I imagined that patrons seated at nearby tables were surreptitiously craning an ear to hear the intellectual rapiers of two grammatical heavyweights. Actually, I probably just sounded like a complete knob.
That is not to say that good grammar is not important. It is vital. If you recoiled at the headline of this post, please be assured that the errors were intentional. Incorrect use of apostrophes, spelling mistakes, double negatives and poorly-punctuated, long, rambling sentences are heinous, because they are plain wrong, and are often an impediment to clarity. Like that one.
The problem is that language is usage. And usage changes all the time. I started a sentence with a conjunction there. And another one. Non-sentences. Just to be stylish. And why not? The line between accuracy and pedantry is a thin one. Steven Pinker, author of The Language Instinct, and a pre-eminent authority on how language works, excoriates some grammatical myths here. Many of these ‘rules’ were laid down by Victorian grammarians whose expertise and status were entirely self-appointed. They were inspired by Latin grammar, and much as I love Latin, it has no business dictating the way English should be constructed. Latin, after all, is dead, while English lives and evolves.
The peak (or rather, nadir) of such a relentless drive for conformity and standardisation is that most Orwellian of publications, the in-house style guide. Chris Finlayson, our dear Minister for Writing Standards, has created his own. While there is much to admire among his copious bullet points (and while my loathing of business/PR/bureaucratic jargon always far exceeds my dislike of prescriptive grammarians), any attempt at codifying black-and-white rules for a language as gloriously flexible and grey as English deserves to fail. So much time is wasted in making sure everyone understands ‘the rules’ and adheres to them.
Yet, so long as obvious spelling and grammatical howlers are proofread and corrected, why should all writing produced by the same organisation be written the same way? The quirks and idiosyncrasies of individual teachers, for example, ought to be reflected in the way they write their school reports: the verbose and figurative English teacher; the Classics pedant; the more terse, literal Science or Maths mind; the laconic PE teacher (who doesn’t know what laconic means, of course).
Everybody’s linguistic ‘standards’ are merely a snapshot in time of a constantly-changing language. It would be ridiculous to insist to-day that Certain Important Words be hyphenated and capitalised thus; for inasmuch as they may betoken a superior command of the English language from around 1915, they are as unwelcome and irritating as the modern trend towards meaningless jargon. Utilisation of blue sky interoperability, anyone?
Believe me, it is challenging enough to get the poor buggers to distinguish between their, there and they’re, to worry about whether to use colons, semicolons, and Oxford commas, or not. And as for Finlayson’s dictum that in the openings of official speeches or letters, the Minister ‘should never be delighted, honoured or excited to be here, only happy’, it just makes me want to chuck the guy a cold one, give him a man-hug and tell him to chill. The three neologisms in the last sentence, though colloquial, are as much a part of the rich fabric of English as the finer points of grammar and syntax. Word.