Grammar for the Nervous

ImageIf you’re getting the feeling that there isn’t much reading going on round here at the moment, you wouldn’t be that far from the truth.  There has to be some level of irony in the fact that undertaking a course of study specifically about literature diminishes the amount of said literature that you read.

Like many others in the blogging world, I’ve signed on for the Coursera module on Historical Fiction and so as well as watching the video lectures I’ve also been making my way through a mound of secondary reading and the first of the primary texts, The Love-Artist by Jane Alison.  I have to say that I’ve found this a very difficult read, partly because of the style, but also because of the way in which she treats her subject matter.  Consequently, it’s taken me much longer to get through than would normally be the case for so slight a volume.  However, I’m not going to say any more about that today as this week’s videos are excerpts from a seminar she held with a group of students about the book and I feel I might be able to give a fairer analysis of the text when I’ve viewed them.

No, today I am going to talk about grammar because I switched on the radio this morning just in time to hear someone saying that everything he’d ever been taught about grammar at school was rubbish and, as someone who has a doctorate in certain aspects of the subject, I want to stand up and cheer.

61XNH7DMqcL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_SX385_SY500_CR,0,0,385,500_SH20_OU02_The speaker was Harry Ritchie, who has just published a book entitled English for the Natives: Discover the Grammar You Don’t Know You Know, and I want a copy now, please. Drawing on his time spent teaching English to foreign language learners, Ritchie makes the same point I would always make to my students – if you are born into an English speaking family, by the time you are three you are an expert on English grammar.  You couldn’t possibly communicate if you weren’t. By the time you get to the age of five you know enough to get a PhD in the subject.  The trouble is that you don’t know that you do.

You don’t believe me?  Well, let’s take a couple of examples.  I’m sure, for instance, that you all know the difference between the meaning of these two sentences.

I like to go to the dentist twice a year.


I like going to the dentist twice a year.

I bet there aren’t many of you who would put your hand up and agree with the second of those sentences, but you probably all know that for your teeth’s sake you ought to agree with the first.

What you may not be able to articulate is that I’ve given examples which show the difference between a verb that is followed by an infinitive and one that is followed by a gerund.  Well what do you know, you don’t need to be able to articulate it.  You just need to be able to use the two forms and understand the difference when you hear them.

Or what about this.

I live with my boyfriend.


I am living with my boyfriend.

This is a bit more subtle perhaps, but does the first one not have rather more of a sense of permanence and commitment about it?  Using the progressive participle (living) suggests that this is something that is happening at the moment but is going to come to an end at some point. The full form of the verb in the first sentence speaks of a decision made with the intention of sticking to it.

We know English grammar; what very few of us know is how to use the technical terms that describe it and how to articulate the nuances we employ every day of our lives.

From something Ritchie said I think he also tackles the horny old questions of never ending a sentence with a preposition, not splitting an infinitive and never starting a sentence with ‘and’.  I do hope so.  These are man-made, or perhaps I should say pedant-made, dictates that should be thrown out of the highest possible window.  They have nothing to do with the grammar of English.

So, please never get yourselves into a tizzy about an imagined lack of grammatical knowledge on your part.  I read what you write on a regular basis and I’m here to tell you that you all know everything you could possibly need to about the way English grammar works.  You are all first-class experts.  You just didn’t know your own brilliance.

30 thoughts on “Grammar for the Nervous

  1. Thanks very much for giving me a great idea for a Christmas present for someone who knows a passel (passle?) of stuff about grammar already, but who is always looking for good books for his students.

    1. I don’t know if it would be any use as a course book, but it would be a good one to have available in a college library as a reminder of how much fun grammar can be.

  2. Oo, that book sounds cool! I’m particularly interested in the English grammar “rules” (like splitting an infinitive) that actually come from Latin. I take a positive pleasure in splitting my infinitives, as is perfectly reasonable to do in English.

    1. Yes, Jenny, me too. I have a friend who is extremely eminent in this field and she was always being called upon to speak about grammar whenever there was some new edict from the government. However, they gave up asking her because she really knows what she is talking about and so instead of defending what was being taught she would always side with those like you and me who recognise that English is a living language and definitely not Latin. It wasn’t what they expected from a Professor.

  3. This was fun to read!

    It’s also got me thinking about vocabularies and how knowing the right terms while helpful in the meta discussion of the thing at hand is not really necessary for its enjoyment.

    1. Yes, there are times when you really do need to have the metalanguage because it can act as a kind of shorthand between people who have studied the subject in depth but for everyday usage it’s pretty pointless. I don’t even need to know that a verb is a verb to be able to use one correctly.

    1. He was compelling, wasn’t he? I wish more people would recognise what fun grammar can be. My first years used to come to class at the beginning of term absolutely terrified.

  4. I think grammar is fascinating, but it’s definitely something I’ve absorbed more than learned by study. I’ve also developed a theory that reading well-written books continues the process, almost by osmosis. I know I am a better writer because I am a reader, and I know people for whom the opposite is clear.

    1. I suppose the problem is that as well as absorbing good plain grammar we can also absorb the pretentious rubbish that you sometimes come across. I’m thinking about the people who insist on ‘you and I’ on occasions when in fact ‘you and me’ is grammatically correct. Our Prime Minister has a habit of doing that.

  5. Why weren’t you one of my English teachers? I hated grammar. I was blessedly spared sentence diagramming in high school only to have to learn extra quick in college when I had to take an entire semester of grammar for my lit degree. An intermediate expository writing teacher opened my eyes to the nonsense and I will love her forever for it.

    1. I would have loved to teach you, Stefanie, and I would have had you revelling in grammatical diagramming because I would have given you a reason for enjoying it. By the way, did you notice how I cleverly sidestepped the term ‘sentence diagramming’? Not everyone agrees that there is such a thing as a sentence, you know!

  6. I heard the interview too, though “must order that from the library” and promptly forgot about it. I shall go ahead and request, not least on the basis that it’s a book I think they ought to have. As you say, very refreshing.

  7. oh the number of arguments I had when working in government about my use of ‘but’ and ‘and’ at the start of a sentence. It irritated me to have a grammar lesson from people who insisted on capitalising everything in a letter that sounded ‘important’. In the end I resorted to carrying a copy of the Bible and the sports section of the newspaper just to prove that yes people did write like this and it was ok to do so.

        1. OK. Well, ‘and’ and ‘but’ are what we call coordinating conjunctions and their job is to link two EQUAL units of language. That might be two words – bread AND butter, two phrases – the owl AND the pussycat, two clauses – put your book down AND turn out the light and so on right through the various levels of language just as long as what is on either side is operating at the same level. So , you could have a chapter in a book (which would linguistically be a paragraph, although that isn’t the same thing as a punctuated paragraph) that summed up a character’s plan of action and the next chapter could begin. ‘And that is just what he did…….’ At the beginning of a linguistic paragraph that described the outcome of the plan.

          I hope that makes sense.

            1. You get unequal units joined when you use the other sort of conjunction – a subordinating conjunction. These join two clauses together but place one in a subordinate position to the other. So, for example, “I am not going out this evening because the wind might blow my car off the road.” “I am not going out this evening” is what we call a ‘main’ or a ‘free’ clause because it can stand on its own and make sense. “Because the wind might blow my car off the road” is a ‘subordinate’ or ‘bound’ clause because you can’t understand it without its main clause being attached. Thus, the ‘main’ clause is more equal than the subordinate one.

  8. That sounds brilliant! I’ve always been particularly annoyed at the ‘not ending a sentence with a preposition rule’, and break it all the time.

    1. Again Catie, not a ‘rule’ as such but a piece of pedantry made up by someone in the nineteenth century who hadn’t got anything better to do with his life😉.

  9. I love the beauty and logic of the rules of grammar, but the best advice I was ever given is not to think too much about rules, and instead to read what I wrote aloud. If I can read it comfortably it should read naturally for others. I think it works for me – whether I’m writing formally or breaking rules left right and centre writing blog posts in what I like to think is a conversational style.

    1. The students used to look at me as if I’d gone mad when I told them to make sure the music was right as well as the words, but clearly, you would have understood exactly what I meant:-)

  10. @Alex: “what we call coordinating conjunctions and their job is to link two EQUAL units of language”

    But that isn’t really a reason; it’s a rationalisation to justify the usage. The units can be wildly unequal: a short trivial sentence, followed by a 1000-word debunking starting with “But”; or a cogent 1000-word essay, followed by the short sentence “But that’s daft”. Either would still be a grammatically correct use of “But”.

    Whatever its role in general, a better description of the function of “But” at the start of a sentence would be that by Zinsser, quoted by Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage: “it announces total contrast with what has gone before, and the reader is primed for the change”.

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