30 Things to tell a Grammar Snob

Published on: 16 May 2013 Author: Matt Haig

The award-winning national treasure Matt Haig, who's work includes The Runaway Troll and To Be A Cat, became our eighth Writer in Residence back in 2013.  In this blog Matt wrote about his detest for strict adherence to grammar and its acolytes, and wrote a handy list of 30 things to say in you inevitable social media exchanges with the grammar stasi.

Matt Haig

Grammar has been in the news a lot this week, primarily because eleven-year-olds will soon be taking compulsory grammar tests.

Since that announcement the Daily Mail has published an article about how our brains are hard-wired to spot grammatical mistakes, the BBC website posted a grammar quiz, and everyone from Michael Rosen to Stephen Fry and, inevitably, Michael Gove have been contributing to the debate.

A few weeks ago I planned to write a blog about grammar but chickened out after posting some excerpts on Twitter and getting jumped on by the usual mirthless apostrophe-fetishists.

Also, although my 30 Things to tell a Book Snob blog was quite popular, it made a lot of people angry, and I got a nervous stomach ache. But then I thought if there is a time to talk about grammar, the time might be this very instant. So, here it is, Thirty Things to Tell A Grammar Snob. (I am hiding behind a cushion.)

1. Language is not a test.

2. Analysing the mechanics of language does not help you learn a language. I spent seven years learning French by reciting verb lists and analysing the correct use of prepositions, yet I can hardly make sense to a French person without pointing.

3. Being good at language is a feeling. 'Grammar is a piano I play by ear,' as Joan Didion said.

4. English was not always fixed. Look at Elizabethan times and the flux of early modern English. But obviously, without fixed grammatical rules, people couldn't be as good at English, could they Shakespeare?

5. Shakespeare melted language into a kind of cauldron, conjuring magical transformations. Adjectives become verbs, and often adverbs become nouns, such as when Prospero talks about 'the dark backward' of time. This wasn't 'correct' in any era, but such free magic was probably more likely to happen when correct usage meant what sounded best, rather than adhering to the rules.

6. The first grammar textbook, William Bullokar's Pamphlet for Grammar was published in 1586, after Shakespeare had finished his education.

7. Question. Do you feel more passionate about something after you're told you've got it wrong?

8. If the aim of grammar is understanding, why scowl at something incorrect if you understand it?

9. I once wrote a book without apostrophes. Pretentious of me, but there wasn't a sentence you wouldn't have understood.

10. Do you use the word 'data' in the singular? Or do you say 'datum'? (No-one really has a leg to stand on.)

11. People often cite the invention of the printing press as the start of the standardisation of the English language. But centuries later Byron and even Jane Austen were using language and punctuation in ways that were very idiosyncratic.

12. The Victorians tightened things up. They liked strict grammar. But then, they also liked corsets.

13. That last sentence used to be grammatically incorrect. Some grammar fascists still frown on starting a sentence with 'but', while others don't. It is impossible to please every grammar fascist.

14. There's something inherently snobby about ridiculing market traders about their wrongly-placed apostrophes.

15. The Oxford English Dictionary first appeared in 1895. I don't think that standards of English got instantly better after that date.

16. Lynne Truss said 'don't use commas like a stupid person'. I say, calling people stupid doesn't help their grammar.

17. People who fret that the dash isn't as effective as the semi-colon need to get a life. Or read Byron.

18. Evolution happens through mistakes. Just ask a biologist.

19. There is no grammar textbook in the world that is going to give a child - or anyone - a love of language.

20. And if you have a love of language you will express yourself in a better way than those who couldn't care less.

21. All language was once dialect.

22. If you're told the language you and your parents and friends speak is wrong, yet the one politicians and upper middle class people speak is right, then you will not only feel excluded from language, but society too.

23. Grammar lags behind usage. And in the age of Twitter, usage is changing faster than you can write a hashtag. #writeahashtag

24. The internet is opening up language. New words are being coined every second. Acronyms and emoticons are challenging what we actually mean by a word. We're heading back to hieroglyphics, and English hasn't felt this free for at least 500 years.

25. To apply the rules of logic to English is like trying to apply the laws of physics to dreams.

26. Grammar is about rules. Imagination has nothing to do with rules. Yes, a book needs a proof-reader. Yes, you need to check for typos in an application letter, but the thing is, you will be better at writing if you haven't been put off writing.

27. Language should feel fun. Are you having fun when you tell someone off about a split infinitive?

28. Grammar is important. It is as important to language as cooking is to food. But the best chefs invent their own rules and let their tongues be a guide.

29. Early grammar pedants wanted English to follow the laws of Latin. But no-one spoke English that way, so the grammar people got grumpy. They are grumpy again now, even though they don't want you to speak English like it is Latin. Grumpiness is the only consistent thing.

30. Grammar is not mathematics. Its truths are not absolute, but subjective. They change between cultures and eras. The beauty of language is that it helps us express our individuality. It allows us to play. We fix its structure too tightly and we fix ourselves too tightly. Our language is as imperfect and wonderful and multi-cultural and contradictory as ourselves. Offer sign-posts and guides, if you must, but don't fail or penalise or judge people for imperfectly using an imperfect system. That really would be stupid.

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