Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Grammar: A Fashionable Topic

 An article from the New York Times took me back to my college days and the study of grammar.  John McWhorter says that "proper English is, like so much else, a matter of fashion":

Few people want to throw out instruction in grammar, but I daresay, grammar is taken less seriously than it once was.  In college, I took an education course taught by a former high school English teacher.  She chose to teach the class grammar because she said she was tired of principals complaining to her that English majors no longer knew grammar.  They were only interested in teaching literature.

Well, there were a few hidden smirks among the students, and I may have been one of the smirkers.  I thought I knew grammar well enough.  I was wrong.  I learned a lot in that class, and, throughout the years, I came to appreciate its practicality.  I even kind of like grammar.  I still don't think I know it all--in fact, I know I don't.  As an editor and writer, I find knotty little problems with which I struggle.

I just struggled not to end that last sentence with a preposition.  Saying "I find knotty little problems I struggle with" is more natural to my ear and perhaps yours.   Which brings me to this (another questionable construction?):  Usage often prevails over the long run.  In graduate school, I did another project on language and grammar, and that was my conclusion.  I'm talking centuries here, and I am by no means dismissing the teaching of grammar.  But language is a living thing and dialect, or the way people speak, gradually affects what is acceptable in formal speech and writing.  It's possible that a century from now ending a sentence with a preposition won't be looked upon as incorrect.

I could go on and on about this, but a really dull topic is nagging at my conscience.  That would be housework.  I'll just refer you to a lucid discussion of grammar at About.com, a product of the New York Times company:  http://grammar.about.com/od/basicsentencegrammar/a/grammarintro.htm.
(They care a lot about grammar at the NYT.)