Thursday, 9 January 2014

Grammatical iconoclasm

Some pleasant bits of grammatical iconoclasm I just ran into:
Firstly, on Language Log - The English passive: an apology - the linguistics professor Geoffrey K Pullum has posted a link to his new paper, "Fear and Loathing of the English Passive", an enjoyable demolition of long-standing beliefs about the passive voice. A brief reminder:

The man bit the dog ... active voice
The dog was bitten by the man ... passive voice
Pullum's attack is two-pronged. One line of argument is that a high proportion of grammar pundits bemoaning the passive voice, and style guides forbidding it, haven't a clue what it is. For instance, they might treat virtually any use of the verb "to be" as passive, or consider any sentence as passive if it's somewhat vague about the agency - the doer of a verb. The paper contains a large compendium of examples of such misidentification.

The other line is that the idea that the passive - even when correctly identified - is automatically vague or weak just doesn't stand up to scrutiny: you don't get much stronger than, say, "President Kennedy was shot today". Pullum concludes:
What is going on is that people are simply tossing the term ‘passive’ around when they want to cast aspersions on pieces of writing that, for some ineffable reason, they don’t care for.
Direct link to the paper: The English passive: an apology.

Secondly, via Language Hat, - Blame Chomsky! - I just saw news of a recent book: Harry Ritchie's English for the Natives: Discover the Grammar You Don't Know You Know. A few newspapers have carried previews, such as It's time to challenge the notion that there is only one way to speak English ("Why do we persist in thinking that standard English is right, when it is spoken by only 15% of the British population? Linguistics-loving Harry Ritchie blames Noam Chomsky") in the Guardian; and Grammar? It's just snobbery in disguise in, surprisingly, the Daily Mail.

Ritchie's book is fierce polemic in favour of descriptive grammar. The thrust of his argument is that a century of linguistics has failed to reach either schools or popular consciousness (he blames Noam Chomsky for driving linguistics down abstract paths). Thus what many people equate with grammar is the body of essentially classist shibboleths invented wholesale in the 18th and 19th centuries. As a riposte to this, he has written a book on English grammar as presented on a pragmatic basis from an outsider viewpoint - English as a Second Language teaching - and shows that it's not horrific. It was only so to people who imagined English ought to behave like Latin.

You can read the introductory chapter via the Amazon preview - see English for the Natives. It looks good as far as it goes, but I'll reserve judgement until I've looked at the unpreviewed chapters that actually get down to describing English grammar. I've noticed on occasion that ESL teaching is not always good at describing English. For instance, it frequently simplifies 'fuzzy' rules into concrete ones - order of multiple adjectives preceding a noun; the correct form of comparatives / superlatives; use of "very" before "extreme adjectives", and so on - and it's not immune from parroting a lot of the nonsensical old prescriptive rules, such as the claimed correctness of "It is I" and other archaic formalisms. However, from the sample findable so far, English for the Natives is linguistically well-informed, and Ritchie's heart is in the right place.

- Ray

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