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 first four chapters of Sidney Greenbaum’s book are written clearly and persuasively enough to inform and satisfy any non-expert. They present a distinguished grammarian’s view of the international language to which he has devoted many years of study, and in particular explain the philosophy of grammar underlying the great work of which Professor Greenbaum is a co-author, A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language. To read, understand and profit from these chapters requires no technical knowledge; they invite the general reader to consider the implications of ‘good’, ‘correct’, ‘rule’, and, indeed, of ‘grammar’. The technical demands come in later papers, and arise from the particular view of grammar which Greenbaum holds (in common with many other British linguists) and which he indicates at the beginning of a chapter on the subject of syntactic frequency: ‘There is a basic division in linguistics between those who view linguistic theory as accounting for language function – the ways in which language is put to use – and those who view it as restricted to the formal structure of language from which considerations of use have been abstracted.’

Grammarians who share Greenbaum’s propensity insist, almost as a matter of social responsibility, on a descriptive theory of grammar that matches observations of what language actually does. They dislike, or at least keep their critical distance from, invented examples and ‘possible’ cases, and prefer the attestation of ‘real’ or ‘naturally occurring’ utterances. To choose this standpoint is to incur two problems. One of these is the organisation of a model and a terminology that properly express the grammarian’s perception of language as a social phenomenon. Greenbaum’s papers on ‘The Treatment of Clause and Sentence’ and on C.C. Fries’s signals model of English grammar reflect this descriptive concern. The other problem is simply – simply yet hugely – that of collecting data. Modern grammars, like modern dictionaries, are prepared on the basis of large corpora, the assembly and processing of which have been greatly facilitated by advances in the science of computation. The technology, however, does not eliminate the grammarian’s labour of eliciting information and analysing what is elicited.

There are, indeed, investigative chores that might seem drudgery to all but the enthusiast, and it is this routine work that Greenbaum describes in five of the volume’s 11 papers. A recurrent question is that of ‘acceptability’, the measure of what will pass muster among linguistically naive informants. In my daily browsings through newspapers and journals I find myself more or less naively brooding over the acceptability of sentences readily produced by competent writers. This, for example, from an article in the Times: ‘Clearly Hollywood agents have superior judgments to me.’ Or this, from a recent review in the Spectator: ‘The possibility that Yasmin is entertaining a lover, both of whom would be killed if they were discovered ...’ To discover how far these might be ‘acceptable’ in the scholarly grammarian’s sense of the word would call for extensive tests requiring fairly large numbers of informants to rank the problem sentences against others in a sample of several competing or variant forms. Constructing such samples is a skill in which Greenbaum is evidently an adept, though his enjoyment of the game does not blind him to the fallacious effects described in the paper entitled ‘Contextual Influences on Acceptability Judgments’. In that paper, and in the chapter called ‘The Question of But’ (ostensibly concerning the scope of a co-ordinating conjunction), he touches interestingly on the readiness of informants to use, in certain circumstances, forms which they may not evaluate as highly acceptable. He comes, in fact, to that frontier where grammar parleys with usage.

Grammar, as its academic practitioners commonly understand it, deals in rules that powerfully account for a generality of instances; though the common understanding may be a delusion. ‘Usage’, insofar as it is related to grammar, specifies the constraints that define particular cases – though the ‘constraints’ are notoriously vulnerable to the democratic whim of the users. If a new instance appears to modify a grammatical rule, I am benignly interested; if a constraint on usage is apparently overborne, I become irritable. Thus it is my personal perception that the usage of the verb persuade requires a direct object, complemented at need by an infinitive clause (‘Her doctor persuaded her to see a specialist’), but that convince is properly constructed with a direct object followed by a that-clause (‘Her doctor convinced her that she should see a specialist’). It happens, however, that the constraints I scrupulously accept, priding myself on my fidelity to ancient practice, are broken every day by the Man on the Clapham Omnibus and even by the Ordinary Secretary of State in the Street. ‘Her doctor convinced her to see a specialist’ is now acceptable English. I am of course enraged; I pleasurably fulminate: but there is nothing I can do about a shift of usage which descriptive grammarians will eventually accommodate in a new lexico-grammatical rule. The hand basket rides on.

In The Longman Dictionary of English Usage Sidney Greenbaum and Janet Whitcut offer a glossarial guide to ‘specific points of pronunciation, spelling, punctuation, vocabulary, grammar and style’. Here indeed is a happy farrago (‘a rather literary word for hotchpotch,’ the authors say) of matters we Basketeers ponder, pick over, cherish or revile. Its advice ranges from curt notes on preposterously simple spellings (‘Weak means “not strong”. A week is seven days’) to matters of greater moment: comments on words misused, over-used or merely confused; fairly long, lucidly ordered articles on punctuation and grammar (on the use of the colon, for instance, or on apposition); helpful observations on style (the entry on ‘cliché’ is a typical model of brief and pertinent counselling); short guides to linguistic etiquette (look up ‘titles of people’ if you want to know how to write to a rabbi); and passages of general information on the English Language (for example, on vocabulary size).

Readers with combative instincts will want to go to the book to discover how right they are in denouncing others as wrong. In some such spirit I looked for comments on the currently fasionable use of designer as a multivalent modifier (‘designer bathroom’, ‘designer bank’, ‘designer lawyer’, ‘designer lover’) and on the phrase ‘state of the art’ as an adjective, commonly predicative, signifying ‘thoroughly modern’, ‘the most advanced of its kind’ (as in ‘Lissn, squire, this motor’s bleedn state of the art, innit?’). In these searches I was disappointed, but I am sure that if the words had been included in their corpus, Greenbaum and Whitcut would have treated them with gentle judiciousness. Their recommendations are invariably discreet: ‘Careful writers avoid the use of convince with an infinitive verb to mean “persuade into a course of action” ’; ‘The use of contact as a verb meaning “get in communication with” was once disliked but is now established and very common except in the most formal contexts.’ The notion of ‘careful writers’ adjusting their usage to the context or proposed function of their writing underlies many pronouncements, and we are thereby reminded of the social and functional considerations that accompany or in some cases override grammatical constraints. One reflection among many prompted by a sampling of this book is that grammatical rule often assists changes that social defensiveness inhibits and retards. An instance not mentioned by Greenbaum and Whitcut is the word target, used as a verb. (They comment on its over-use as a noun.) This usage, which is fairly recent, may have originated in military circles, but seems to have acquired popular status in the business language of entrepreneurs and planners, and even to have found its way into the smart dialogue of educational administrators, replacing humble select and simple aim at: ‘Specific areas have been targeted for further development’; ‘We are targeting universities in Scandinavia and Germany.’ If I find myself growing tetchy when some colleague primly resorts to this executive-washroom word, my objection can hardly be to the grammatical shift: noun-verb transfers have been going on in English for a long time. I am perhaps snobbish; or I detect a foolish affectation; or perhaps I am simply resisting the transfer from one context of discourse to another. Such transfers also have a long history in English, but the point is that while my recognition of the grammatical shift is prompt, my acceptance of the social-discursive transfer will come much more slowly.

Geoffrey Hughes’s Words in Time. It is dedicated ‘to all workers at the alveary’, in reference (I take it) to the emblematic title of a work by the Tudor lexicographer John Baret, who set his students to collect materials for a trilingual dictionary and acknowledged their labours by calling the resultant volume an Alvearie (i.e. a beehive) ‘for the apt similitude between the good scholars and diligent Bees in gathering their wax and honey into their Hiue’. For Hughes, presumably, ‘the workers at the alveary’ are the lexicographers of the Oxford English Dictionary, which he aptly describes as ‘the great storehouse of semantic change in English’. He has gone to the store for the wax and honey of a great many words, and his numerous visits to the OED are inadequately reflected in a Word Index of less than two hundred and fifty items. It may seem a graceless criticism (sic vos non vobis mellificatis apes), but this Index is useless to readers wishing to recover information, make comparisons, sample the book retrospectively, consult, or agreeably browse at their own will.

The theme of the work is that our social history leaves its residue in the words we use, not only as a record of customs and practices, but also as a kind of sneaking testimony to ideas that have prevailed, passing beyond power into conventional assumption. (The phrase ‘law and order’ represents a typical case.) The notion of language as a net in which rainbow ideologies are caught is not a particularly new one, but Professor Hughes’s book has the merit of expounding it systematically and in unusual detail, generally by grouping words in semantic fields which are examined both diachronically and synchronically. It is admirably done, with frequent and illuminating reference not only to learned sources but also to popular materials. He devotes a page and a half to ‘puffing and puffery’ (in a chapter on the semantics of advertising), but has nothing to say of hype, which has all but replaced puff as a word denoting what the OED calls ‘inflated laudation’. In one or two such instances he appears to be unaware of current popular usage. In others he loses some sight of the history of a word, as when he observes that the use of gay in the sense of ‘homosexual’ goes back at least a hundred years. So it does: a hundred years and much further, for throughout the 19th century gay signified, in street argot, ‘sexually active’. It could apply to prostitutes or amateur practitioners of either sex; ‘gay man’ and ‘gay woman’ are both attested, and so is ‘gay house’ (a brothel). ‘Gay instrument’, meaning ‘penis’, is recorded in 1811.

Professor Hughes’s text is full of good things and well worth reading. Only towards the end of the book, and especially in his final chapter, ‘Verbicide and Semantic Engineering’, does he challenge critical opposition. It brings us, in a general way, back to the hand basket, for he appears to believe that the English language is ailing and even dying for want of responsible professional care. In his disquiet over the state of the language, he invokes questionable authorities and scolds others whose professional credentials are more securely founded. It really will not do to interpret Chomsky’s concern with the formal properties of language as ‘an abdication of semantic responsibility’, or as ‘playing word-games while the language burns’; nor do I find it an accurate or fair representation of William Labov’s work to describe him as ‘legitimising illiteracy’.

In each of these cases the charge relates to a single example, which may have prompted a transient and ill-considered response. It does appear, however, that Hughes generally prefers the posture of an Orwellian pessimism to a measured assessment of what has been achieved in recent decades by scholars no less committed than he to the well-being of English. He complains that ‘English, apparently belonging to everyone, is the responsibility of no one.’ He is right in saying that the language belongs to its speakers, but wrongs a generation of scholars, indeed wrongs himself as a professor of English, in bewailing the irresponsibility of those who are best placed to know, judge and advise. He may bewail their apparent powerlessness, but that is a different matter. Wherever they can, to the best of my knowledge, linguists accept their responsibility in the spirit of the rabbinic sage quoted by Sidney Greenbaum: ‘It is not your duty to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.’

Incidentally, I have been trying to discover whether anyone uses the word hand basket except in the American expression quoted in the first sentence of this review. Nobody seems to know it, and modern dictionaries do not list it, but my attention was recently drawn to the word maund, which my informant said Samuel Johnson had taken up from the dialect collections of the naturalist John Ray. I looked up maund in Johnson’s Dictionary. It is defined very concisely, as ‘a hand basket’.