Okay, confession time. I have never been clear on when to use ‘shall’ and when to use ‘will’. I haven’t a clue about the names of the tenses – what the hell is future imperfect anyway? And I was recently chastised for using ‘imminent’, when I meant ‘eminent’. Oops – and in this very post, I just began my last sentence with a conjunction. Do you know what? I don’t care.
There’s a general assumption among my friends that because I am a writer, I am a – what are the usual terms – ? A pedant? Word nerd? Grammar Nazi? Anyway, I thought now was as good a time as any to say – I’m not. I’ve had moments in the past when I have shown frustration at what I saw as poor use of language, or a cavalier attitude to grammar and punctuation, but I’ve been giving it a lot of thought recently, and I believe I was wrong. Here’s why.
People who worry a great deal about these things generally do so on two fronts – one: they believe language is being degraded through the use of slang terms, buzzwords, acronyms and text speak, and two: because they object to people who write or speak English without due attention to the rules of grammar and punctuation.
In answer to the first, I give you this quatrain from the prologue to the Canterbury Tales:
“And specially, from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
The holy blisful martir for to seke,
That hem hath holpen, whan that they were seke.”
What? He can’t even spell Canterbury! And that’s in the title of his book! What’s with the spelling of England? And he uses seke to mean seek, but also uses seke for sick? What the hell is that?
“Ah,” but you say wisely, “That’s old English.”
Well, what we’re speaking now is New English. It’s a fluid language that evolves and changes, and always has. Thank the Lord we don’t have a committee of old men in a gilded hall somewhere, as the French do, telling us what may or may not change about the way we speak and write. Language is a living, breathing thing, and I would argue, it’s an art form, just like fine art, just like music. As human thought evolves, and the world changes, the way we express ourselves changes too. I’m no musicologist or art historian, but I am willing to bet the first time Tchaikovsky played a dissonant chord, or Picasso painted both of the lady’s eyes on the same side of her nose, there were pedants, shaking their heads and muttering. Nevertheless, these changes, and many like them, advanced the fields of music and art, and brave proponents of both forms continue to do so every day.
Yes, some of the changes we see in language may seem to detract from meaning or sense. Yes we are losing some vocabulary. But we are also gaining new vocabulary, news means of expressing a world that has changed dramatically in the last generation– new ways to play with this wonderful, organic and splendid language with which we have been gifted. And if you wish people wouldn’t mess with language, consider that without writers who reject the rules, we would have no “brillig and the slithy toves”, no “snozzcumbers”. No “facecrime”, no Gruffalo.
Which brings me to the second reason people want to be pedants – because they look down on those who are not as au fait with the rules of English grammars, spelling and punctuation as they. If you are one such, let me hazard a guess. You (a) speak English as your first language (b) You went to school in a time and a place where grammar, spelling and punctuation were rigorously taught and/ or (c) you grew up in a home full of books where your parents were readers who gave you extensive support and informal education. My husband attended an inner-city London comprehensive in the eighties, at a time where the policy in education (or at least in his school), was to exclude all Shakespeare, all poetry, and all grammar. Yes, I’m also not sure what that leaves, but there you are. He was never taught the correct names of the parts of speech (nouns, verbs, adjectives and so on), let alone where to put an apostrophe. He’s often self-conscious about this, and will carefully construct a written sentence so that there is no need for him to use an apostrophe, in case he misuses it.
I recently met a woman through my son’s school, whose first language is Polish. She is a lovely, warm young woman, but I dread speaking to her, not because her English is poor – it isn’t, and it’s infinitely better than my Polish would ever be – but because she is so painfully, cringingly self-conscious about speaking English. She is so terrified of making a mistake that she blushes and struggles every time she has to talk to people. I do my best to put her at her ease and to compliment her on her good English, but I cannot begin to imagine how terrifying it must be to try and learn this enormous, sprawling, awkward language as an adult.
And that’s my objection to pedantry. There are people trying to express themselves, trying to convey meaning, and if you make fun of their efforts, you shut them down. If someone says “Oh my word, you can’t believe the amount of people on Oxford Street today. I nearly got trampled!” And you coolly reply, “Surely you mean ‘number of people’?” You’ve stopped listening to what they said. You’re ignoring their meaning, which is perfectly clear, for a pop at their grammar. Well, whoopee-doo for you. Are you correcting that error because you genuinely didn’t understand, or because you’re scoring a point?
My son is five and learning to read and write. He never ceases to amaze me with his bravery and resourcefulness, with his willingness to have a go at reading the most difficult ‘defies-all-sense-and-every-rule-you’ve-been-taught’ word. He’s started writing stories and his spelling is creative to say the least. The other day, we read the word tree’, and he turned to me and said, “Where’s the ‘ch’?” I realised that for his whole life he’s been hearing and saying ‘chree’. It would be easy to laugh at his mistakes or to make a point of picking up on every single one.
However, I’ve decided to take the same attitude with him to language as I do to play. I will always be there to help and catch him if I can, or if he asks. But I want him to run free, to romp and explore, to trip and fall over a few times, to push the boundaries. I want him to love language, to feel it is his, to own it and use it in new ways, ways that I would never have thought of. And I wish the same for everyone.
English rocks. I am sad it is the only language in which I am fluent, but it’s a wonderful one to have. It is my canvas, my palette and my brushes. Sometimes I will try to create finely wrought works in the classical style. Sometimes I’m going to get in there and finger-paint some rude words on a wall. And sometimes, I’m just going to lie down and roll around in it, because it feels nice, delicious, delectable…. and snurkly. Come and play.
One monkey, one typewriter, seldom Hamlet.