6 October 2010

Good Grammar Is About Freedom, Not Restriction

One of Britain's biggest building societies is so worried about the standard of grammar amongst its staff that it has hired an English teacher to give them lessons. This has stoked the old debate about the merits of good grammar and as ever, when I watch proponents of either side argue, I can't help but be disappointed by the narrowness and polarity of the discussion.

The debate is always framed in terms of correctness and clarity. On the BBC this morning we heard the argument that being understood is more important than being correct, to which it was retorted that simple mistakes can cause a complete change of meaning: "bad diet effects pregnancy" would appear to mean that eating the wrong thing can make you pregnant.

All of this is true, up to a point, but it is depressingly reductionist. When even the staunchest advocates of good grammar can only point to prevention of misunderstanding as a benefit, it becomes all the easier to claim that, as long as basic meaning has been understood, language's sole function has been fulfilled. This defensive posture leaves the aspirational ground to be filled by those who remind us that language thrives on change, and that today's grammatical grit is tomorrow's linguistic pearl.

On one level, it's hard to disagree: it's all too easy to replace respect for good language with pedantry. But it's also easy to celebrate simple carelessness as if it is throwing off the shackles of convention. I certainly would not consider myself a pedant (does anyone?) - I am more than happy to brazenly split an infinitive if I think it will more elegantly make my point, and I think it is perfectly acceptable to start a sentence with a conjunction. But there is a difference between personalising grammar and ignoring it, between individuality of style and lack of it.

For this is what good grammar embodies to me: it is not just about understanding words, but understanding people. It is about style, character and expression. It is not a rigid set of laws but a more-or-less flexible framework of rules which most people are happy to see bent or broken, within reason, as long as it adds to the richness of what is being expressed. I love good grammar for what it allows, not what it inhibits. One of the things it allows, of course, is demonstration of ignorance or laziness - there are a thousand ways of getting grammar wrong. But there are still more ways of getting it right.