Grammar. Some people have already switched off, and that’s understandable; grammar isn’t necessarily very exciting. It’s an essential part of language (this sentence wouldn’t make sense without rules governing it), but that doesn’t mean that talking about it will make it interesting. I shall try, however – and perhaps will appeal to a niche audience.
That said, however, we should at least accept that grammar is important, even if talking about it is a turn-off. Whether you believe it’s important because we should have standards in how we use our language, or because the absence of mistakes conveys a particular status as a communicator, or perhaps even because grammar is our main way of making meaning, we can understand each other because we follow a set of rules – otherwise known as grammar.
Grammar matters; not because we’re snobs and should be speaking in a particular way without any deviation. It matters because we use language for a variety of different reasons; to talk to our children, our parents, our friends; to negotiate a pay rise; to work with colleagues and customers; to tell someone that you love them. Each situation requires us to speak accordingly (you wouldn’t speak to a loved one in bed like you were trying to negotiate a contract – at least, not unless it’s an oddly formal kind of relationship), and we need the flexibility of a language that helps us formulate our thinking and share our thoughts and feelings. It raises your self-esteem when you can communicate your needs, your emotions, and your sense of self.
We must also be careful not to get defensive when we talk about grammar. Nothing here is intended to shame or embarrass. There are people who genuinely struggle with the written language; dyslexia affects around 10% of the population, to a lesser or greater degree. This piece – and so many others written by people more articulate than me – is not written to knock people down. It is written to celebrate and cheer the dexterity, wit, and diversity of language, and how that is made possible by grammar.
Some years ago, I was a trainer for three local councils in “behaviour change”; perhaps you’ve heard of that phrase or the related one – nudge theory. It was particularly in vogue during the coalition years of 2010-2015, and I went all over the country with colleagues to share best practice with other councils; how to rework marketing materials, letters, conversations to influence – nudge – people towards the particular behaviour you wanted them to do. A particularly memorable poster from an Australian anti-litter campaign was; “Don’t be a tosser. Take it home.”
I recently looked at a short course on the Open University all about grammar; it actually inspired me to write this piece in the first place. The course was interesting, but something felt wrong to me. I was disturbed by the variety of grammar descriptors; my eyes started to glaze over the more I read. I care about grammar, but that was too much even for me. Grammar should be approachable and something that can be talked about easily, without stress or tension; the more complex it seems, the more we shut off. If we’ve going to have a reasoned, nuanced debate, then it doesn’t need a bewildering array of gerunds, split infinitives, and conditional adverbs.
Language and its structure will change on a frequent basis, and people always struggle with change. Some also struggle with language as it is, and it’s down to all of us to not judge when that happens – the rules of language matter, but we get to control what the rules are, and we all have a right to contribute.