- 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.
Vol. 11 No. 4 · 16 February 1989
In your issue of 19 January Professor Nash writes that grammarians are enabled by their training ‘to recognise their own prejudices’. Perhaps it would be better for us all if he had written that grammarians may well be less prejudiced about language than other people are, but they do have prejudices. Like the rest of us, grammarians are able to recognise many prejudices in other people, but only some of their own. I am thinking of two in particular: first, the prejudice that one dialect is inherently better or worse than another. Linguists correctly point out that the dialect currently called ‘Standard’ is no better or worse than any other dialect. It is nothing more than a historical development of the old East Midlands dialect, but it has become useful to know because careers depend on the ability to use it, and because it is the preferred dialect for most printed matter. But linguists then turn this description into evaluation by calling the dialect ‘Standard’. A standard is the best there is of its kind; there is no ‘Superstandard’. Referring to a dialect as ‘Standard’, therefore, linguists are not describing it as simply useful or printed: they are accepting the prejudice that one dialect of English is better than any other dialect.
The second prejudice is presented by Professor Greenbaum as a fact: ‘A grammar of present-day English is a grammar of a standard dialect of English, which is implicitly identified with the language as a whole’ (Good English and the Grammarian). In fact, the identification is explicit, not implicit: in the introductions to two grammar books Professor Greenbaum has helped to write it is argued that the grammar of the standard dialect constitutes a ‘common core’ which is found in all English dialects. Certainly, it is true in a very general sense that English grammar is the same for all English dialects and also true for most of the everyday, surface features of grammar that students, lay people and textbook writers are most likely to be interested in. But it is not true for a number of well-known surface features, some of which (‘was’ for ‘were’, for example) are of great social importance, while others (the use of double negation, for example) are of great semantic importance. These and other well-known differences are not described in these two grammar books, though some of them are briefly mentioned in footnotes. These grammar books cannot, therefore, be correctly named ‘grammars of the English language’. They are grammars of the standard dialect and are no different in that respect from most of the other grammar books written during the past four hundred years.
In the context of the current national debate about teaching grammar and the English language, these two prejudices are of central importance. The Bullock, Kingman and Cox Reports all recommend respect for all dialects of English. But this respect cannot be instilled if one is called ‘Standard’.
Professor Nash’s recent review of the Greenbaum/Whitcut Longman Guide to English Usage, though properly welcoming, does less than justice to those areas where the book is unique. 1. The Guide can cause students to fall off their chairs with laughter. Nash has mentioned the keen distinction drawn between weak and week (‘Weak means “not strong”. A week is seven days’), but he doesn’t give the masterful clearing-up of the confusion between handsome and hansom, lustful and lusty, and suit and suite. 2. Scholars will be grateful to Greenbaum/Whitcut for years for having shown them the way to an undemanding, risk-free and nearly inexhaustible vein of research and publication. You can see this in the handling of ‘seige’ – ‘an incorrect spelling of siege’ – but the ‘sabre, saber’ type of article – ‘The word is spelled sabre in British English, saber in American English’ – promises well, too.
Walter Nash writes: Ey oop, m’duck, as D.H. Lawrence used to say, innit gerrin’a bit black ower Bill’s mam’s?: which means – put into pallid Standard – My goodness, wasn’t that thunder I heard just now? It’s odd how these controversial clouds roll up whenever the talk is of grammer and usage, but it may clear the sky just a little if I assure Mr Fairman that I am generally on his side, and, what is more important, so are Professor Greenbaum and other highly distinguished grammarians; as indeed are countess lecturers in English who have been doggedly plying their missionary trade this forty years and more. Meanwhile Keith Walker jovially suggests how daft and devious it is to take money for explaining to the world the difference between hansom and handsome, which even the sub-standardly literate ought to know. And so it is, perhaps, and so they ought – except that any teacher of English will testify that these things have to be patiently explained to the most unexpected people. I might say that periodically, indeed almost weakly, I am beseiged by spellings that would have me retching for my lustful saber, if I had one. Apart from which, there is an almost metaphysical problem that besets any writer on usage: should one explain the things that cannot possibly need explanation, because in the absence of the unnecessary the work must necessarily be incomplete?