Have you every worried about whether you’ve got your grammar right? When you should say ‘whom’? Whether to say “you’re taller than him” or “you’re taller than he”? Whether to split an infinitive or say ‘fewer’ instead of ‘less’? There are plenty of books that you can turn to which will give you a definitive answer about what is grammatically correct. Have a look at the
#grammarpolice hashtag on Twitter if you want to see how obsessive people can become. But guess what? They’re wrong.
My Dad, Dave Willis, was happily retired, spending his days with his crosswords, newspapers, wife and family, when two books on grammar sent him scurrying back to his desk. Nevile Gwynne’s Gwynne’s Grammar and Simon Heffer’s Strictly English came with the promise to set you on the path of grammatical righteousness. But Dad, who spent many years researching how people speak and learn English, took umbrage. And so he began work on a new book, to fight back against the grammar police like Gwynne and Heffer.
Dad’s book, Winning the Grammar Wars, explains how we actually use English, when we speak, or write formal documents, emails or texts. He shows how language changes in different situations, and how it has evolved over time. Above all, he argues that grammar should be descriptive rather than prescriptive. A descriptive approach explains how language is actually used, in real life, based on evidence from written texts and spoken dialogue. A prescriptive approach insists on rights, wrongs and rules. This prescription is normally justified with reference to formal written language, and grammar rules taken from Latin, but in reality is much more about the author’s view of what is correct.
If you think beyond the focus on grammar ‘crimes’, it suddenly becomes clear how much we take for granted. Before children start school, and long before they can define what a verb, noun or split infinitive is, they have already developed an innate and almost effortless understanding of language and grammar, which they use flexibly in different situations. We all carry around an immense amount of knowledge about how to communicate. The grammar police take issue with a few particular niggles like ‘who’ and ‘whom’ or when to use fewer rather than less. But these are minor issues compared to the hugely complicated grammar rules that we all get right without even thinking. (Did you know there are seven ways to express the future, and that you use them all?)
And, in fact, there is no right or wrong answer to many of these so-called ‘crimes’. Grammarians can describe normal usage but they can’t prescribe how we should speak or write. That’s not to say that there are no rules – language relies upon convention, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to understand each other. But the way we use language is far more sophisticated, nuanced and creative than any prescriptive grammarian would suggest.
Dad died in 2013, before he’d had a chance to finish his book. But my mum, whose career as well as life was intertwined with Dad’s, finished it for him, with the help of colleagues, friends and family, and has published the result as an e-book – a true labour of love.
I’m biased, of course, but I think it’s a really engaging read. It made me think a lot about the way I communicate, and it will be useful to anyone who teaches, writes or is just interested in language. It’s a tribute to his work and life, and I really hope that it will give people the confidence they need to use language with creativity and flair, and stop living in fear of the grammar police.