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Does good grammar really matter?

The emphasis placed on formal written grammar in schools obscures the fact that English has many kinds of grammar – and they’re all equally valid, writes Waikato University senior lecturer in linguistics, Andreea Calude.

“But don’t you want your kids to get a job one day?”

There are almost 200 people in this room. It’s hard to believe that so many people want to come and listen to a talk on grammar and whether it matters. I get the distinct feeling many are dreading the awkward conclusion that after all is said and done, grammar does not really actually matter. But you are a mum, one will say. Don’t you want your kids to get a job one day?

The truth is that I have spent some ten years of my life thinking quite explicitly about grammar. I do not mean about ways of phrasing this or that. What I am talking about is sifting through language data, journal articles, and theory books about grammar, and trying to figure out when different formulations occur and why. Grammar has been quite literally my business for a good decade now.

So what have I learnt? And what would I want to teach my own kids about it?

Not one grammar, but many different grammars

When we talk about “grammar”, what we actually mean is “the grammar” and even more specifically, “the grammar of written language” as taught in schools. These distinctions are not made explicit; they remain hidden behind the veil of “proper English” and “a good education”.  To write properly is to write in the standard language form. To write otherwise is to show ignorance and a lack of status or intelligence.

Unbeknownst to many of us – I was already a third-year linguistics student myself before the penny dropped – there isn’t a single grammar out there, but multiple ones. I am not talking about the grammar of different, mutually unintelligible languages. I am talking about grammars of the same language. Like many languages, English has a grammar system used for speaking and a different – though largely overlapping one – used for writing.

There may be a standard grammar system used in formal language, such as in schools and universities, in legal documents, in certain media outlets, in non-fiction books, in high-brow newspapers, in research reports. And there might be a number of non-standard grammars used among family and friends, with local community members, by certain ethnic groups, in certain geographical regions.

As far as communicating itself goes, all these grammar systems are equal – they are equally beautiful, eloquent, logical and expressive. But socially, there is only one which holds the sceptre of social power: the grammar of standard written language. This social upper hand gives the grammar of written language prestige, and the capital to reign supreme over all others.

As soon as such a standard is born, suddenly all effort goes into mastering it. So much work is invested in acquiring this almighty powerful linguistic form that the grammars of other systems and their importance become overshadowed and ignored. Members of society show off their knowledge of the standard grammar of written language, like they would show off a fast sports car or an expensive house in a well-to-do neighbourhood. It becomes their passport onto the social ladder. So keen are some to show off their standard grammar that they sometimes overstep the mark and go further than the standard itself – a process linguist Bill Labov termed “hypercorrection” (the “try-hard” language user).


Speech and writing

The moment we equate “grammar” with “writing”, we forget that spoken language (or sign language for that matter) can also have a grammar, an internal consistency and structure of its own. Robbing spoken language of the privilege of having its own grammar means that writing becomes the yardstick by which we measure all others.

We assume that deviations from written grammar constitute the dirty little secret of speech and of other language varieties. These deviations are instantly labelled “bad”, “ignorant”, “uneducated”, “illogical”, kicking speech (or signing) further down the hierarchy of language status.

But how many of us learn to write before we learn to speak or sign? Speaking (or signing) is always primary (and necessary). Speaking is so natural that we do not even give it a second thought. Once acquisition is completed, we disregard it altogether like we do walking. How many times have you been congratulated on how well you are walking today?

Imagine what communication might be like if we all sounded like standard, formal writing. It would take some time for us to figure out what the main message is. Then, once parsed, we would need to have a think about how to formulate an appropriate response. Communication would become much slower, much denser, and not at all viable in real time. Language is adapted for speaking and for good reason!

The grammar of insiders

The same can be said for grammars of non-standard varieties of language. Take Māori English for example. To date, there is still surprisingly little known about this variety (or possibly group of varieties), but one feature which we think is rather characteristic of Māori English is the highly frequent use of the tag “eh” (it’s about time we get to know this variety eh). While other varieties use it too, Māori English just can’t get enough of it.

It has been suggested that “eh” is a bonding particle, a way to include the person addressed into the conversation and acknowledge their involvement. This preoccupation with inclusiveness is not atypical of non-Western varieties and it is a way of consolidating relationships, like a social glue.

There is no quicker way to become part of a community than to use the local forms of communication. Just as acquiring some German can be helpful in forming a relationship with locals in Germany, if you’re not Māori yourself then dropping in extra “eh”s may be a good way of gaining access to your local Māori English community.

The grammar of outsiders

What the grammar of standard written language can do for a speaker or a writer is very different. Using this form of language can allow one to communicate with people who are not part of their local community. Standard varieties act like ‘lingua franca’s across communities of speakers who still use the same language, but frequent different social networks, different geographical regions, or cross the divide of different social classes.

Viewed from this perspective, one might say that the grammar of standard written language is a bit like “the grammar of outsiders”. Handy? Yes! Better? No.

But don’t you want your kids to get a job one day?

If different language varieties are all legit, and we are all to become metaphorical grammar-hugger hippies, won’t language and grammar descent into a free-for-all, anything goes sort of chaos? No at all.

Speakers of English can easily spot when something is not part of the grammar of English (for the most part). A sentence like “There shoes the put I” is most definitely ungrammatical in all varieties of English, Māori English, Pākehā English, the Southern dialect of NZ English, and so on. What makes the other grammars distinct from purely ungrammatical use is the consistency in use of various expressions. This consistency is what helps form the regularity in the system (the patterns) and thus the vehicle which helps to guide the transfer of meaning.

Grammar does matter! The importance of studying and grasping grammar cannot be understated. Today, we know more about grammar and about how different grammatical systems work than we have done in the past, and so there is more grammar to teach and learn than ever.

So here is what I would tell my own kids. Their ‘home grammar’ (be it spoken English, Pasifika English, Māori English, and so on) is not wrong, any more than speaking another language is wrong – and we know speaking multiple languages can only be a good thing. All these systems are linguistically valid, but the contexts in which they are used matter enormously. Becoming a skilled communicator involves learning how to navigate these grammars and knowing how to use them in their appropriate contexts.

And then, hopefully, they can appreciate that getting a job may involve using standard formal written grammar. But actually doing the job may require them to use a larger repertoire than that!

Andreea S. Calude is a senior lecturer in linguistics at the University of Waikato.

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