Is There Such a Thing as 'Proper English'?

Fewer grammar is literally no skin off anyone’s cheek. 


A new essay in The Wall Street Journal by Oliver Kamm contends fo’ shizzle nope, there ain't no "proper English." I kid: Mr. Kamm wrote his piece in impeccable English. But his thesis is that it’s wrong to insist on standard English. “The grammatical rules invoked by pedants,” he claims, “aren’t real rules of grammar at all.”

What, then, are those misnamed “rules”? Mr. Kamm says they are — “at best”  mere “stylistic conventions.” So the injunction against double negatives is groundless: “I can’t get no satisfaction,” the Rolling Stones lyric, “makes complete grammatical sense.” What about split infinitives? Bring 'em on: English speakers should not be faulted if they opt to boldly go where their snooty ancestors haven’t gone before. Same for using “hopefully” as an adverb modifying a sentence. (Hopefully you will grasp that concept after finishing this sentence.) And there is no problem with saying “between you and I,” when the Grammar Nazis insist on “between you and me.”

Hang loose, English speakers! You’re in the clear as long as your use of the language is consistent with “general usage.” That means you don’t have Mr. Kamm’s blessing for saying “flimmergrintlock bejeebles” (don't Google that) when you are trying to order a chicken sandwich, because no one has ever heard of those terms. And you can be criticized for writing simply “Skippy oh man apocalypse throat” to inform your child’s first grade teacher of a peanut allergy.

On the other hand, go ahead and add a gratuitous apostrophe to “its” when you’re using it as a possessive pronoun, and feel free to subtract one from the contraction. Its no big deal, says Mr. Kamm. Everybody's doing it. Indulge in mispronouncing “nuclear” as “nu-cyu-lar,” George W. Bush style. Use “less” (rather than “fewer”) when you’re talking about items you can count. However many English speakers are still using “fewer” the fuddy-duddy, old-fashioned way, there are less of them every day. And fewer grammar is no skin off anyone’s cheek. Literally.  

The point of using language precisely is not to alienate or to stigmatize. It is to communicate clearly and elegantly. Of course there is ample room for diverse “language games,” in Ludwig Wittgenstein’s terms, each with its own grammar and constitutive of its own culture. Every publication has its peculiarities and peccadillos, often enshrined in a style guide explaining exactly how writers should handle everything from titles to jargon to euphemisms. The Economist isn’t aiming to ostracize The New York Times when it calls the conflict from 1939-45 the “second world war” rather than “World War II.” By telling his readers which old-time "bogus" rules they "may" start breaking, Mr. Kamm is, in effect, developing his own sketch for a style guide. In that sense, he is no less of a pedant than anybody else. 

Mr. Kamm’s argument relies on what he seems to think is a clear distinction between “rules” and “conventions.” But there is no such bright line. All communities have norms governing how they communicate. Call them rules or call them conventions: you want to be understood by the people you are speaking to or writing for, and you want to be seen as hewing to shared linguistic norms. There are no “laws” of grammar whose violation will land you in jail. The grammar police do not carry billy clubs. But failing to “speak the language” of a community you want to thrive in, or wish to join, will get you nowhere fast. This is why Mr. Kamm’s declaration that “people should not be stigmatized for the way they speak” is so silly. His moralizing is either obvious or wrongheaded: No one should chastise a stranger on the subway for letting a participle dangle, true. But neither should a writing teacher let his students mangle semicolons or flub subject-verb agreement just because everybody's doing it wrong.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

 

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