Sunday, 27 January 2013

Sez who?

'Most of What You Think You Know About Grammar is Wrong'

This is the sort of lazy cliché that makes my lip curl more than somewhat. People don't 'know things about grammar'; more to the point, they're not taught things about grammar. In some cases, they're taught grammatical rules that the teacher thinks are true; and almost always those are wrong. Moreover, what's that 'you' doing? I can see that it makes for a catchy headline, but it risks contemptuous  scrutiny by people who don't think anything of the sort (whatever that may be)!

And most annoying is the fact that the article's heart's in the right place (or rather the hearts of the 'bloggers at and former New York Times editors' who wrote it). I started by laying into the headline; OK, as a committee was writing the post, maybe an unpaid intern (and while we're on the subject of unpaid interns, sign this, won't you?) wrote it. So, what about the post itself?

Here's the first paragraph and a bit:

You’ve probably heard the old story about the pedant who dared to tinker with Winston Churchill’s writing because the great man had ended a sentence with a preposition. Churchill’s scribbled response: “This is the sort of English up with which I will not put.”

It’s a great story, but it’s a myth.
What has this got to do with the point of the post? The scribbled riposte – not made, I think, by Churchill, but reported by Sir Ernest Gowers in an early edition of Fowler is an example of the sort of 'rule' the post is talking about; so it's relevant. But what has the next line got to do with the price of fish? If they want to say it's untrue (a usage of 'myth' that I loathe [sic, and another thing I loathe is being thought to have got the spelling wrong when I use 'loth' to mean 'unwilling'] with the heat of a million Suns, as my little sister knows to her cost*), they're undermining their own argument. And to what end? They give no authority for their statement in any case.

Perhaps 'legend' ('that which is to be read' legendum ) would be nearer the mark as it has been written about by Gowers. And the written record has been been reproduced and embellished and distorted over the years. My headmaster (RIP 'Dodo', a bully but a charming and talented one) had it as “This is the sort of English that I will not up with put.” Another source (I forget which) held that it was Churchill again, but added an expletive or two.

The thing is that English has phrasal verbs where a verb is thrown together with a 'particle' (usually a preposition, but without its prepositional force). So that you cut a tree down before cutting it up. Or you 'listen out for the milkman' although nothing goes out from the listener; an acoustics engineer might hold that in fact any movement (sound waves) is towards the listener. English shares this trait  (in a less extreme way) with German, of which Mark Twain famously wrote:
The Germans have an inhuman way of cutting up their verbs. Now a verb has a hard time enough of it in this world when it's all together. It's downright inhuman to split it up. But that's just what those Germans do. They take part of a verb and put it down here, like a stake, and they take the other part of it and put it away over yonder like another stake, and between these two limits they just shovel in German.
Mark Twain's Speeches, "Disappearance of Literature"
(Skippable though not entirely irrelevant - digression)
My choice of 'listen out' as an example is not entirely accidental. I'm singing this season Fauré's Requiem, which includes the prayer Exaudi orationem meam. This phrase is preceded by a soprano solo tune† marked both piano and dolce: a very gentle and not-very-down-to-earth (in fact angelic)  'It is fitting that a hymn should be offered to you in Sion, O God'. Here the human penitent breaks in,  fortissimo: Exaudi – as if they were saying 'Enough of this airy-fairy stuff  "it is fitting that..." my Aunt Fanny! This really matters to a human soul. Among all the millions of prayers addressed to you throughout Christendom not to mention that bl**dy  'hymnus' listen out for mine.' The rather limp translation 'Hear my prayer' doesn't do justice to the word.

Then the speaker thinks better of this impertinent fortissimo interruption, and repeats Exaudi  but piano. The id then reasserts itself with the next word fortissimo: 'No I'm  not going to be quiet and reverential.' The internal dialogue between the super-ego and the id is reminiscent of Gollum's arguments with himself.  But enough of this, I really am going to get back to that article...
At the funeral of a grande dame yesterday (RIP Pat, and lucky old Bob) I witnessed an underlining of the importance of this Ex-. We were in the middle of one of those interminable call-and-response prayers, with the congregation saying ‘Lord, hear our prayer‘ again and again. And The Angelus butted in. (For the uninitiated:  The Angelus is a very noisy Call-to-prayer†† – much noisier than the Islamic version: ding ding ding <pause> ding ding ding <pause> ding ding ding <pause...has it stopped?>  <oh dear me NO, suckers> DING DING DING DING DING DING DING DING... [ad nauseam]).  And the congregation was bleating (that‘s one for the etymologists: grex = ‘flock‘) ‘Lord, hear our prayer‘. Here was the perfect opportunity for something more robust: ‘Listen out for my prayer‘. 

One of the shibboleths addressed in the article is the one about not ending a sentence with a preposition, which they trace to the rule of Latin grammar mindlessly imposed by early English grammarians. But this omits a point that is perhaps too obvious to be noticed. Look at the word 'pre-positions'; they come before things. It is simply a logical impossibility to end a sentence with a word that necessarily comes before something unless it were a 'pre-full-stop'.

But what happens when you force this rule onto English, with all its phrasal verbs? Any phrasal verb in a subordinate clause risks its particle, apparently a preposition, falling last: to use that Exaudi example, 'This is the prayer that I hope God will listen out for.'

As I said at the beginning though, the writers' hearts are in the right place. The message is right on; shame about the medium. The last point (made by Orwell‡ many years ago) is worth underlining:

There’s a simple test that usually exposes a phony rule of grammar: If it makes your English stilted and unnatural, it’s probably a fraud.

*In the mid '70s I was studying the idea of myth in the work of Borges, and with the self-assurance of a 23-year-old I thought myself the sole custodian of the word 'myth'. Sorry, old bean
Update 2013.01.28: Fauré made the elementary mistake of not making this a solo though it is a sweet and angelic-sounding tune sung by the sopranos. Apologies for this lapse ( he was only young!)
Update 2013.01.29: January 2013 was the occasion of several programmes about Orwell on BBC Radio 4. I expect - or have missed - the traditional trotting out of David Crystal, who never misses an opportunity to put the boot in. There are 5 mentions of Orwell in the index of The Stories of English, one of which points to a two-page salvo. I have a pretty good idea he does the same at least once in The Story of English in 100 Words. The problem is that Orwell made a mistake that offended Crystal's linguistic sensitivities.

OK, the man got it wrong. But he's wise and perceptive; lay off, Crystal you're bigger than him (in this  respect).  Orwell's article is thought-provoking, perceptive, and witty. At one point (the parody of Ecclesiastes in modern business English) it's hilarious. It should be required reading for anyone who tries to communicate in writing; it might avoid such painfully jargon-ridden, obscure, and pleonastic signs as the one I saw recently in a municipal building: 'Due to the Council's Green Practices initiative this hand-dryer is non-functional. Visitors are hereby requested to use alternative disposable paper products.'

Orwell's Ecclesiastes spoof inspired my teaching resource based on Churchill's memo to the War Cabinet. In my TESconnect description of it I say:

This handout looks at a memo written by Churchill to his wartime cabinet on the subject of plain writing. Opposite Churchill's original there is a parody breaking all the rules he mentions (and a few more). On the reverse, there is a textual analysis done by the tool available at, showing the quantifiable effects of using woolly language. This could be a basis for web research into writing skills.
As regrettably, but inevitably they say, enjoy!

Tales from the word-face
After the shenanigans mentioned here, I have just reinstalled HoTMeTal Pro. But bearing in mind the fears I expressed there of new software, I stopped (after installing V5,0) and didn't install the V6.0 upgrade. Let's see if it works any better...


Update 2013.07.15: 'Tempus', as my old maths master used to say as we neared the end of another lesson, 'has fugitted'. See below for the latest.

Update 2013.07.24: Various tweaks and bits of  esprit de l'escalier.

Update 2015.01.16.10:30 – Added autobiographical note in red and updated footer.

Update 2015.01.16.16:45 – Added this note:

†† Not all believers would recognize this as a call to prayer exactly, but the name 'Angelus' is the first word of the prescribed prayer.

Update 2017.09.02.18:05 – Added PS

PS: Much of  this post,  brushed up, reordered, tweaked, and with added esprit d‘escalier here and there, appears in my forthcoming (perhaps that should be F O R T H C O M I N G – that is, don‘t hold your breath) Words and Music.

In the meantime there is this sampler (which will be free to download from time to time: follow @WandMbook on Twitter for announcements).

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