If 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.
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.