Grammar: we love you


Dodgy grammar

Grammar has been in the news a bit lately. This morning, for instance, there was a piece on Radio 4's Today programme about The Idler's forthcoming Bad Grammar awards. The rather arcane “bad” examples chosen by The Idler‘s editor didn’t, perhaps, do him many favours, but it was nice to hear this important topic get some proper airtime.

Elsewhere, Michael Rosen has been railing against Michael Gove’s plans to institutionalise a spelling and grammar test for schoolchildren. He makes a number of arguments about fundamental flaws in trying to assign binary “rights” and “wrongs” to spelling and grammar, but one can’t help feeling that he’s mainly against the nature of the proposed test, not teaching grammar per se.

Both Rosen and the professor that Today brought on to stick up for less rigorous grammatical standards point out that the “rules” of grammar change all the time. The important thing, surely, is whether a sentence or phrase is understood, not whether or not it mixes gerunds and infinitives? Well, up to a point, yes.

Certainly clarity should indeed be the overriding priority in all writing. You have something important to say, so don’t use language that anyone could find ambiguous, trip up over or fail to understand altogether.

But just because the “rules” about what constitutes acceptable grammar evolve as trends and media change, it doesn’t mean they’re not valid. Rules, after all, are not the enemy. They’re not there to make life harder for the writer; they’re there to make life easier for the reader. Fundamentally, they’re there to provide a framework for clarity.

I’m reminded of an even more arcane argument that continuously rumbles through the world of cryptic crosswords. When I tell people I dabble* in crossword setting as a hobby, the usual response is, “I can’t do crosswords. My brain’s not wired that way.” It’s understandable. In isolation, a crossword clue typically reads like bad poetry or a surreal stream of consciousness.

But fundamentally, crossword clues – most of them at least – follow a fairly narrow set of rules and rely on the richness of the English language for their complexity, humour and surprise. (And they’re not that hard to learn for those who have a bit of patience.)

These rules were originally laid down by a setter who went by the soubriquet Ximenes, and they have changed very little since they were established. Key to his philosophy is a quote from Afrit, one of his predecessors in the world of cryptics: “You need not mean what you say, but you must always say what you mean.” In other words, you can construct a clue that’s incredibly witty and deceptive on the surface, but when the solver picks apart the cryptic wordplay, the answer should be clear, unambiguous and without padding – not a bad maxim for copywriting in fact.

There’s a vociferous movement in crosswordland, however, who think the Ximeneans are a bit prissy for sticking to a formal set of rules to determine whether a clue is “fair” or not. The Libertarians favour much more open-ended clueing, reasoning that, as long as you can work out what’s going on, it doesn’t much matter if, for instance, you’re clueing a verb using a noun.

The point is, though, that even enthusiastic Libertarians like Araucaria, the current king of the setters, can judge when and if they should break the rules, precisely because they know the rules in the first place. And as it is for “fair” and “unfair” in the rarefied realm of crosswords, so it is with “right” and “wrong” in regular grammar.

There are two essential dangers to discarding the rules of grammar. The first is that your message doesn’t get across, and this should be enough for any writer to sit up and take notice. The second is that you don’t know when those rules can and should be stretched to breaking point.

Or, to put it another way, without the rules you won’t know when to think different.

* If anyone fancies having a go at one of my puzzles, there's a good example here. It was compiled for a food and drink magazine so there's a bit of a theme. Nothing too specialist though.

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