English grammar: please do not correct

"My lord, I do here in the name of all the learned and polite persons of the nation complain to your Lordship as first minister, that our language is extremely imperfect; that its daily improvements are by no means in proportion to its daily corruptions; that the pretenders to polish and refine it have chiefly multiplied abuses and absurdities; and that, in many instances, it offends every part of grammar."

-- Jonathan Swift (at the time of the grammar reform, 18th century)

"Cry grammar, and let slip the dogs of refereeing!"

-- William Shakespeare's scientific brother (Francis Bacon? or the other one?)

This web page is not a scholarly work. It is an expression of opinion that I fiddle with when I am bored.

One of the wearisome effects of living in a non-English-speaking (hyphenate as desired) country is the abuse one suffers at the hands of native English speakers who have an irrational belief that, simply by living in a country whose native language is a form of English, they have the right to assert grammatical error of anyone who does not. This is particularly the case of American and sometimes English scientific referees, whose knowledge of their language is sadly flawed and shows little understanding of reality. Often "grammatical error" is used to mean "syntactical error", "semantic error" or even "spelling error". It has reached the point where the cry of "grammatical error" has become, in my opinion, the last refuge of the incompetent. As one would say: a case of people throwing stones in glass houses.

However, even "experts" of language fall into coveted self-righteousness over something that I claim is public property.

It is very common to have double standards when it comes to language. "I am allowed to make up words, forms and what I call grammar rules, but you are not". The real problem is that everyone feels that they are a definitive source of correctness, and that others' command of language is intrinsically flawed. While I cannot disagree with the former, the latter is definitely untrue. I think that anyone who attempts to criticize a language should know at least two different languages (with different grammars). In this web page, I claim that my own use of language, which is neither right nor wrong, is at least consistent and justified. Can you say the same?

To set the record straight, I am a native English speaker, with an above-average interest in language (though rather prone to tyopgraphical error), and not particularly opinionated about style... though I have my own range of styles that I keep to. I am willing to tolerate most slang, vernacular expressions, idioms and matters of opinion on the subject of language. But. That does not mean that I have to adopt any Tom, Dick or Sally's personal opinions myself. A few things I hear really get my goat, and I cannot bring myself to write them.

The crunch is this. Contrary to what American television and religious fundamentalists would have us believe, the world is not neatly partitioned into right and wrong, good and evil etc. Language, in particular, is a social convention. The most basic piece of scientific evidence for that is that folks do it different(ly) in different countries and places. Unlike the laws of physics, we cannot derive the correct syntax of a sentence in natural language. Someone just made it up in the past, so in principle anyone can just make it up today too. Of course, if we had no standards, we would not be able to understand each other --- but there is a wide grey/gray zone in which understanding is conveyed and strict deterministic rules do not apply. We identify ourselves by the choices we make. Language is no more enforceable than the clothes we wear.

Some fans of rhetoric would like to have us believe their version of right and wrong by writing down rules for language like "i before e except after c", but they must then hurriedly correct such rules with a plethora of exceptions. I try to laugh at anyone who wants to use language as a kind of thought control, to partition the world into the righteous and sinners. What exactly does that accomplish? How does this help us to express ideas and communicate and make poetry. Shakespeare himself was criticized for his use of the new English, and now his English seems old and strange. Was it right or wrong? Did it contribute anything to the world? (Insert your own answer)

Nothing excites us more than the chance to be right at the expense of others (who/whom) we don't know.

Language is constantly evolving. Some words are just unnecessary and, over the course of time, will likely disappear from language as it evolves (like the distinction between who and whom -- what does it contribute?).

But then there is consistency and reason. If we cannot have right and wrong, we can argue reason. Here is one of my niggles .Personally, I cannot accept the current practice of correcting traditional and consistent syntactical and grammatical constructions with expressions of common parlance that have only entered the language through ignorance of common grammar.

For example, the current practice (even among(st) scholars) of writing: There are a number of errors.

As long as a difference exists, in English, between "is" and "are", it offends me to see this usage. Conversely, one never sees (with the definite article)

The number of errors are ... (fluffy/red/green/tall/large)

Non-native English speakers have frequently commented on this inconsistency to me (having a generally better understanding of grammar than the English or Americans), and all I can say is, if one chooses to write this correctly (i.e. according to the current rules of syntax), then editors and referees should please do not "correct" this `correct' usage with a vulgar form. e.g.

ConsistentVulgar (often vernacular!)
There is a number of books in the box There are a number of books in the box
There are numbers of books on grammar ?
The number of books in the box is great or fluffy The number of books in the box are great
The numbers of books on grammar are enormous ?
There is a box of books There are a box of books
There are boxes of books ?
The box of books is heavy (or fluffy) The box of books are heavy
A box of books is heavy (or fluffy)
A number of books is heavy (or fluffy) A number of books are heavy.
A number of books has hard covers A number of books have hard covers.

and so on. Another example of the same is this: one hears "There are a lot of things to do", but "There is a lot to be done." For some reason adding "of things" throws our speech into confusion, although this is a straightforward grammatical extension. You might think that the last of these is particularly ugly; it is certainly never heard. But, my lords, that scarcely excuses polite persons from their chief, daily corruption: the extremely imperfect use of irrelevant and misinformed criticism.

Here are some other strange things that we write and say (I shall extend this list for fun as I think of it, or have time):

  • "As best we can..." (As well as we can. The best effort we can.)
  • "Tell it to John and I" (Tell it to John and me)
  • For some reason that I have never understood "Focused" is spelled with only one "s". This seems to break the general pattern of English spelling. My dictionary spells "focused" but also has "hocussed".
  • Why do the British write get, got, got and whine loudly when Americans write gotten, and yet preserve beget, begot, begotten and forget, forgot, forgotten?
  • "Think different." (Think differently) - American English is systematically eliminating the adverbial forms in favour of the corresponding adjectives. (Real thorough!)
  • "To leverage something". I cannot begin to describe my loathing of this use of a noun as a transitive verb.
  • In America in particular there has arisen the bizarre rule for words beginning with "h" that one should use the indefinite article "an" instead of "a". This originates from the original practice of writing "an hotel" since hotel is an imported French word and the "h" is silent in French. The word "an" is reserved phonetically for words than begin with vowel sounds. Since England was in a wave of French affectation, it was common to use the French pronuniation. There seems no harm in continuing the tradition for the word hotel. Similar rules for inserting consonants exist in other languages and make perfect sense, as language is defined by its oral tradition, not its written rules, your hono(u)r. But, do we need to extend it ruthlessly and illogically, not to mention unpronouncably, to every word beginning with "h"? To say "an hallucination" or "an habitat" is another case of dumb rules presiding over better judgement and general intuition, yet it so clearly does to the servile and unquestioning public of an increasing fraction of the English speaking world.

I am forced to laugh when people say "You cannot say X -- that's not a word!" and then proceed to use all manner of slang and concocted expressions themselves. e.g. I cannot poetically improvise the verb "to surveil" (as in surveillance), but the word "globbing" seems perfectly acceptable to the same person. (I believe the criterion for a word appearing in the Oxford English dictionary is that it should have appeared in print at least twice or four times? That being the case, one should be careful to say "X is not a word", simply because it is not found in someone's edition of a dictionary.) My dictionary tells me that "to survey" is associated with the noun "surveyal", and that surveillance stands alone as a different form (both come from old French)-- so why disallow a new word that follows the forms of grammar and is not ambiguous, when a random ugliness like "glob" is to be allowed? In fact many such forms are eventually accepted into regular speech, precisely because they do follow the forms of grammar. I shall always remember the very amusing:

To iterate is human, to recurse is divine.

(Though I do forget where it came from...) Another example is the following. Network service providers speak of "provisioning" --- a word that I personally loathe. The verb "to provide" is associated with the noun "provision"; e.g. "service provision is optimal". To "provision" is a redundant verb formed by "verbing" the noun "provision", and adds neither poetry nor meaning to existing vocabulary. Indeed, one can continue the verbing-nouning process: why not say "provisionizationing"? This also follows the grammatical form. But that would be silly???

Clearly some critics' rules of language are not only illogical but also unfair.

My gut (sometimes) reacts (sometimes) queasily to old fashioned American words that are no longer used in Britain, e.g. "smarts" (to modern ears this sounds like something a child would say, not knowing the word "intelligence"), even though it probably shouldn't. I find it odd to see American authors' spelling changed into English spelling in UK editions, and vice versa. In spite of Mr. Webster's slap in the face to the British over spelling, it is now a fact and serves to identify the cultural difference. Why translate it?

In summary -- if you are going to criticize "grammar", make sure you know what you are talking about. And! Punctuation notwithstanding? Try to have a sense of humo(u)r. It's all a matter of convention, and we are all contributing to its evolution.