Language Fears

Walter Nash

  • Good English and the Grammarian by Sidney Greenbaum
    Longman, 152 pp, £6.95, February 1988, ISBN 0 582 29148 8
  • Longman Guide to English Usage by Sidney Greenbaum and Janet Whitcut
    Longman, 786 pp, £10.95, June 1988, ISBN 0 582 55619 8
  • Words in Time: A Social History of the English Vocabulary by Geoffrey Hughes
    Blackwell, 270 pp, £14.95, May 1988, ISBN 0 631 15832 4

It is widely feared that our English language is deteriorating, or as the Americans robustly say, going to Hell in a hand basket. I can well understand how people believe this: if our grocers can write of Grape’s and Banana’s, and our journalists believe that a cohort is some manner of minion, henchman, buddy or sidekick, then we are all aboard the wickerwork diligence, never a doubt of it. But that, you will tell me, is not quite what you mean. What you really fear, it seems, is the demise of grammar. Your children are not taught grammar in schools. They may be taught to express themselves, but they are not taught to express themselves properly – that is, grammatically.

Such wounding encounters have flustered me in the past, but now I shall be able to refer my accusers to Sidney Greenbaum’s Good English and the Grammarian, a collection of papers written with an enviable capacity to appeal alike to the scholarly specialist and the enquiring member of the general public. Collections are sometimes to be criticised for their want of an informing argument, but this one is organised round a central purpose, which is to show what academic grammarians do, how they set about their work, and what they consider its social significance to be. One of the papers, the shortest in the collection and yet the key to the volume, addresses itself to the matter of the grammarian’s responsibility. It is a piece of Professor Greenbaum’s wisdom that he avoids, as ultimately illiberal, the easy denunciation of ‘prescriptive’ or ‘normative’ grammars. For many years, the word prescriptive has spelt anathema to pious grammarians, and descriptive has offered salvation. Your task is to describe, through patient elucidation of its immanent rules, the complexity and powerful creativeness of the linguistic system which every individual commands; let others then decide on matters of right and wrong. But this ignores the needs of the consumer. There are people who fret about saying the right thing. There are parents who want their children to get on. There are good folk everywhere who would simply like to avoid censure and ridicule.

Greenbaum accordingly recommends that ‘grammarians who are concerned to describe how language functions should take account of prescriptive grammar in their own descriptive grammars,’ adding that ‘grammarians should also evaluate how far normative rules are followed in practice and to what extent they reflect the attitudes of speakers of the language or (more particularly) influential sections of society.’ This is excellent advice, not only because it directs the attention of the grammarian to the relationship between language and social power, but also because it reminds him of a duty to the powerless. Prescription may be a bad thing, but if someone has to provide it – because there are those who stubbornly ask for it – it had better be provided by grammarians, whose training enables them to recognise their own prejudices, to look objectively at questions of variation and change in language, to take account of what is demanded by different functions and styles, and above all ‘to explain the bases for prescriptive rules and evaluate them’. To which Greenbaum adds: ‘What they may need to learn is how to frame their advice in language that will be clear and persuasive to non-experts.’ This is no doubt a prudent afterthought, though my experience is that by comparison with some literary theoreticians, grammarians achieve a lucidity verging on charm.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in