Thursday, June 23, 2011

Performing mouth to mouth on grammar

If you're looking for more language discourses topics in readiness for tomorrow's ENGA3 exam, this might be a good link to have a look at. One of the debates that's been knocking around for a long time (probably forever) is that around the seemingly inevitable decline in standards of English grammar among the general population and whether or not we should care. In this article, the author, Barbara Gunn, suggests we need to "resuscitate" grammar.

As an English teacher, I think grammar is important, but perhaps not for the same reasons that Barbara Gunn puts forward in her article. I can't help but shudder when I read someone using  your instead of you're, or there instead of their, but perhaps that's my inner prescriptivist crying out and I should learn to ignore it, a bit like I ignore the cat as it mewls for food seconds after being fed. Prescriptivists have complained about the general public's inability to use grammar properly ever since English came into existence, but is it actually getting any worse?

Henry Hitchings - whose book, The Language Wars I've plugged endlessly on here - makes the point that people have been confusing should have and should of and you were and you was since the 17th Century. Perhaps it's because more of us write now than ever before (tweeting, emailing, texting and even blogging all being new forms of "writing") that these grammatical errors/non-standard forms are being noticed more. Maybe we are becoming less literate. I dont no.

If you have a look through this blog for posts about grammar usage (usually tagged prescriptivism or descriptivism) you'll find a number of articles about Simon Heffer's (appalling) Strictly English, and the Queen's English Society's most recent musings on our language going to the dogs, along with some descriptivist critiques of their arguments. As you're having a look at these, you'll probably notice the familiar models that Jean Aitchison pointed out in her classic Language Web lectures: the crumbling castle, the damp spoon and the infectious disease.


Dr. John Blenio, D.C. said...

I have a question about grammar.

I listen to sports radio often. I live in the San Francisco bay area.

I often hear radio broadcasters make reference to athletes with a higher level of skill. They use the athletes name in a plural context such as the following:

"Some of the greatest quarterbacks in the game of American football played at an extremely high level. Those who's talents are on a similar level to the Joe Montanas, the Peyton Mannings, or the Terry Bradshaws, will eventually be considered as great."

I argue that referring to these athletes in a plural context is incorrect.

The proper way to speak would be to say, "...Those whose talents are similar to athletes like Joe Montana, Peyton Manning, or Terry Bradshaw will eventually be considered as great."

What is right and what is wrong here?

Thanks in advance.

Dan said...

Hi, good question...

I'm not sure I can give you a full answer, but perhaps the expressions you refer to are referring not only to the named athletes but those of a similar standing. So, even though Joe Montana's name might be invoked, he is being used as a representative of a particular type of sportsman who has achieved a certain level of success.

In Huddleston and Pullum's Cambridge Grammar they refer to a secondary use of proper nouns "to denote a set of entities having relevant properties of the bearer of the name" such as "We need another Roosevelt" or "She's no Florence Nightingale" where the name is referring perhaps to the properties associated with these people rather than the people themselves.

Does that make some sort of sense? If it does, then it's seems to me perfectly valid to pluralise a proper name in the examples you give.