Parsing and Other Unfashionable Pastimes

The nineteen-sixties have a lot to answer for. Many a baby was thrown out with the bathwater. And one of them was the teaching of English grammar.

(My inner grammar policeman immediately castigates me for the dangling preposition in my first sentence, the cliché in the second and for beginning a sentence with ‘and’ in the third.)

So what am I whingeing about today?

(Two more knuckle-rapping-worthy grammatical sins – don’t start a sentence with ‘so’ and yet another dangling preposition – this is something up with which one should not put.)

Well, I stand by my questionable style, whilst simultaneously bemoaning the pitiful state of English as she is spoke and wrote in much modern media. I go through life with an invisible red pencil in my hand.

Put very simply: until the end of the nineteen-fifties, it was generally accepted that grammar was prescriptive. There were rules, and if you wanted your English to be correct, you applied those rules. Then along came Noam Chomsky & Co and upset the applecart by pointing out very loudly that actually languages are alive, constantly evolving and developing, and grammar can therefore only be descriptive. The old-school grammarians had little choice but to stand by and wring their hands in despair in the face of entropy.

Grammar Police

Grammar Police (Photo credit: alykat)

Poets like ee cummings had been messing about with English grammar for years and getting away with it, but suddenly prose was now also “liberated” as grammar rules, like sexual inhibitions and many other restraints and metaphorical chains that had bound us until then, went out of the window. By 1970, grammar was no longer being taught in (native) English lessons and if a syntactical element was in current usage, it was accepted as correct.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not complaining about innovation and change, which only add to the beauty and strength of our language. Thank you, Shakespeare et al! I am inveighing against the ignorance that has led (yes, led and not lead) to dreadful mangling of our beautiful English language, and to some errors that are so widespread, nobody even notices them any more. For instance, the plethora of superfluous apostrophes and the misuse of subject pronouns after a preposition:

  • Between you and I ….
  • We went to dinner with she and her husband …
  • All things come to he who waits …

If these speakers had learnt about parts of speech, or how to parse a sentence, they would be aware of when to use which pronoun. Parsing has been labelled a boring exercise (although personally, I always enjoyed the process of analysis) but it did mean that we appreciated how to use our native tongue, and when it came to learning foreign languages – especially inflected languages like Latin, Greek, German or Russian – we quickly understood the purposes of the different cases and grasped the rules of word order.

Perhaps there is a correlation between ignorance of the syntactical structure of English and the poor performance of British schoolchildren in modern languages nowadays, in spite of the majority of them being so much more widely travelled than fifty years ago and therefore more exposed to foreign languages in situ.

Ironically, foreigners learning English do still study English grammar. Of course they make grammatical errors, and we love to mock them for it, but few foreigners would make the mistakes listed above. These are now so rife among native speakers that I hear foreign students are being taught that this is acceptable usage. My grammatical heart bleeds.

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8 thoughts on “Parsing and Other Unfashionable Pastimes

  1. Ugh. Though I didn’t (unfortunately) get much grammatical training in English, and probably don’t notice many originally “ungrammatical” things, I am still happy to have a fairly traditional or old-fashioned version of the language at my disposal. I find it extremely annoying that not even radio and TV people speak “proper” English anymore – whatever happened to ‘BBC English?!
    It’s also really annoying to have to fight computer grammar checks when you know there’s nothing wrong with your sentence!
    However, I have had to back down on “aluminium” since I recently heard the history of it: discovered and named in America as “aluminum”, the second “i” was only added to bring it in line with the other elements ending in “-ium”… there go my illusions!!

    • Yep – the WordPress grammar check wanted “lead” and not “led”. Pronunciation and style are one thing, blatant bad grammar is another, and that’s the axe I’m grinding here. Despite my squeals, English will survive in some form or other!

  2. Heute mal auf deutsch: du sprichst mir aus der Seele! Dieselbe Entwicklung ist natürlich(?) auch im Deutschen zu beobachten, und auch mir blutet das Herz bei so mancher Veränderung, die ich nicht akzeptieren will – angefangen bei der neuerdings epidemisch um sich greifenden Verwendung von Adverben als Akjektiv (“die schrittweise Einführung” und ähnliche Gebilde – grrrr) – aber auch die Neue Deutsche “Rechtschreibung” (harharhar)…
    Aber auf mich hört ja keiner…. 😉

    • Jawohl, Carola!! Irgendwann gibt es nur noch einen Mischmasch aus verdeutschten englischen Wörtern. falsch geschrieben, falsch ausgesprochen und total unverständlich ausser von den Eingeweihten! Pity the poor translators!

  3. I love this post. This calls to mind a young man who taught English in the same school where I taught Spanish. He had been a monk for a number of years, left the monastery and got his teacher’s certification. Another teacher was explaining something to him about the lesson he was to teach that day. He said, “But that’s wrong!” She said, “Gene, that’s called transformational grammar.” He said, “So what’s the point? Are we supposed to transform our students into idiots?”

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