Saturday, September 12, 2015

English Grammar

Grammar can be a challenge, depending on which language one happens to be studying.  Some languages have more grammar than others, for one thing.  English is somewhere in the middle.  German and the Romance languages certainly have more grammar than English.  Thai is on the “less grammar” side of the equation.  Thai is often said to have no grammar at all, but that’s not true.  It’s true that Thai has no conjugations, no declensions, no tenses per se, no punctuation, no plurals, and indeed, no spaces in between the words, but it does have rules for word order.  The most complex languages, grammar wise, have fortunately passed from the earth.  Latin was bad, and Sanskrit was much, much worse.  English is probably the most studied complex grammar language in the world today, and people do complain about it.

It is often necessary to use proper grammar, and that is all well and good.  Writing for the court, for instance, or writing academic papers and articles.  Sometimes proper grammar is critical. 

Sometimes it is less important.  Articles for newspapers or magazines may or may not employ proper grammar.  Newspapers routinely abuse the passive voice, or the comma, by overuse.  Magazines may discard grammar altogether as a matter of style.  This is especially true since writers like Hunter Thompson and Richard Meltzer popularized the vernacular style that they picked up from the beatniks. 

Reaching the issue of novels, short stories and, God forbid, blogs, grammar becomes a matter of discretion.  These are very personal forms of expression.  The writer must be more concerned with the story itself, or the feeling, or with the tone of the communication.  About poetry, I will quote Erwin Panofsky or Bernard Berenson (referring to Jerome Bosch): “this, too high for my wit, I prefer to omit.”  (I’m seventy/thirty for Berenson having ended his book on Northern Renaissance Painting with this quote.) 

The tension created by grammar is this:  what is more important in a particular case?  Proper grammar or direct communication?  Sometimes the critical thing is that the reader understand the material in the manner intended by the author. 

I was very careful about my grammar when I was writing for the court.  The audience for court pleadings consists of judges, lawyers and court clerks.  These people are highly educated and they can be hypercritical.  If they don’t approve of your style, then they are not likely to believe your argument.  I was also very careful writing letters to clients or other lawyers, for similar reasons.  Anything in writing can come back to haunt you.  Other lawyers may wish to hire you, and clients frequently wish to sue you.  It’s best to be careful and err on the side of caution.

Here on the blog I don’t worry too much about grammar.  I try not to get too carried away with style, but abuses are common.  Run on sentences, comma splices, initial dependent clauses, dangling participles, it’s all here.  I’m going for a conversational tone, more like a letter to a friend than a serious piece of writing.  If it’s readable, persuasive, and/or informative, I hit “publish.” 

Spoken language is very much the same.  I spend a lot of time speaking with English learners.  Many of them are worried about, or embarrassed about, their grammar.  I tell them that they should speak English as often as they can, just go for it.  It’s all about communication unless you’re taking a TOEFL test or something.  “If I understood you,” I tell them, “you said it fine.”
A few of these English learners are particularly interesting.  On the one hand, you would have to say that their English grammar is not good at all, but on the other hand you recognize that they have extensive English vocabularies and great hearing comprehension, and they can converse easily on a wide range of subjects.  Proper grammar is nice, but these people are doing fine without it. 

The bottom line is that whether you are writing or speaking it is your language.  Writing or speaking your own personal brand of English is okay, because few things in life are more personal than language. 

So have some fun!  You English learners should ruthlessly inflict your English on the world, without regard to occasional grammatical errors or failures to communicate.  There’s no substitute for practice, and mistakes are great teachers.  And you native English speakers, be daring!  Be stylish!  If the beatniks taught us one thing it was that you could be yourself and still make a living. 

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