Monday, December 1, 2014

Illuminations: Grammatical Structures


There are much, much, much more important things going on in the world right now; I'm going to talk about why I hate the idea of proper grammar. I apologize. I hope all my English major friends still talk to me after this.

I've gotten into this discussion more times than I'd like to admit over the past week or so: I hate the rules of prescriptive grammar (things like dangling prepositions, split infinitives, that the word "this" should always be followed by a noun, to never start a sentence with a conjunction, not using they in the singular, to not use good as an adverb, the avoidance of the passive voice, etc.) I have a couple of reasons for this that I'm going to try my best to explain thoroughly without being verbose and annoying.
1. Linguistically, these rules are nonsense.
The way English grammar works is probably not how you think English grammar works. When a linguist sets out to diagram how a language works, what they'll be looking for are the rules that govern how sentences are constructed with various words. For instance, let's steal a practice exercise from my linguistics textbook. Below are a set of sentences from a language called Amuzgo, a language from Mexico, and their translations.

macei'na tyocho kwi com — the boy is reading a book
kwil'a yonom kwi w'aa — the men are building a house
nnceihnda yusku kwi com we — the women will buy a red book
kwil'a yonom ndee meisa — the men are making three tables
macei'na kwi tyocho com t'ma — a boy is reading the big book

Linguistic analysis is the function of figuring out how those translations (the closest we have to what these sentences mean without knowing Amuzgo) are construed from those sentences. So after looking at it for a while, you'll realize that the word com in Amuzgu is book, that kwi is the article a, that the absence of an article works at the definite article, that yusku means women, that macei'na means is reading with the 'na being the auxiliary is, etc. So a literal translation of the first sentence is this: is reading (the) boy a book Looking at that sentence, we can say that the way sentences are generally constructed in Amuzgo is with the verb first, the subject second, and the object third (VSO, as opposed to English's SVO). We can also see that articles are optional in this language, that the present continuous form of the verb is present as a suffix on the main verb, that adjectives (we = red) come after the noun they're describing, etc. So I can make these grammar rules for this language now:

S -> VP NP NP
VP -> V (Aux)
NP -> (Art) N (Adj)

That is the grammar of that language. Simple—simplistic, even—but functional. I can make sentences in Amuzgo with those rules. So an ungrammatical sentence in Amuzgo would be something that deviates from those rules: putting an adjective before a noun, changing the order of verb phrases, etc. The grammar of Amuzgo dictates that this sentence is impossible: *kwi tyocho macei'na we t'ma com. You'll notice, however, that the way I just constructed that sentence works perfectly fine in English if we translate literally: a boy is reading a big book.

I outlined this exercise to make this point: grammar is not the dictation of what is proper, and grammar is descriptive. The way English grammar works is how people use it to make it work: if the meaning can be construed readily by a native speaker, then the sentence is grammatical. So English sentences with bad grammar, then, would be largely impossible for any native English speakers to actually make, because grammar is an ingrained tool that we know in and out by age six or so.

The identification of English grammar looks like this:


Not like this:



This isn't to say that a bunch of the rules you know about English language are unnecessary; dangling modifiers, for instance, are linguistically ambiguous and lead to a semantic problem that makes the sentence difficult to understand readily—making it, well, a bad sentence. But nowhere in America will you find a speaker that cannot readily make meaning out of a sentence like "Our mission is to boldly go where no man has gone before," or "And this is nonsense; can't you see that?"
2. Written language has rules for clarity, but they too are largely arbitrary.
An argument I've head a lot against the above is that written language is just plain(ly?) different than spoken language. However, I want to refute that. It's true, there is no punctuation in spoken English, but written language is just a derivative of spoken language, and I think that many of rules for things like punctuation and spelling exist largely for clarification we intuitively know when we hear language spoken to us. For instance, the following sentence will make you cringe: Its just that there rules bother me. However, if you hear that sentence out loud, you know exactly what it means; it's only because of things like homophones that alternate spellings exist, and only for clarification purposes that things like can't have an apostrophe (unless we're to ask Cormac McCarthy) and that semicolons exist at all.

I make this point largely because I was asked, well, if I hate proper grammar so much, then why do I use it? And there are a few responses to that question. One, Stockholm syndrome. Two, I read manuals of style for fun because I like to play with how language works. Three, "proper" grammar is only what is standard, which you may have noticed I've been using despite breaking a lot of prescriptivist grammar rules throughout this post. And four:
2. The idea of "properness" in most things is just generally classist and abhorrent. 
I want you to define proper for me. Because according to Merriam-Webster (god that is a thing I never want to type again in my life), it means "correct according to social or moral rules; behaving in a way that is correct according to social or moral rules." I problem I have with the idea of properness is that we live in a white patriarchal society that favors wealth and statues above most things: the definition of what is proper, what is socially correct, has been set by a ruling class that wants to distinguish itself from those of a lower set of people. These prescriptive grammar rules, while seemingly innocuous, are just another example of classism imbedded as a societal norm. These rules were set by very rich white men in the eighteenth century; they probably didn't even apply to the working class at that time, let alone our modern day. Historically, what has been considered "proper" has always been of some wealthy patriarchal value that deems what isn't "proper" as improper, unintelligent, or stupid—which I want nothing to do with, especially where something as inherently expressive as language is involved.

This sort of classism is the same reason why African American Vernacular English came under attack in 1960's, when some social workers claimed that the African American population lacked linguistic competence because they spoke a different dialect of English—that is really completely not special in any grammatical way because it's just a different language.

Also, the fact that we'll consider the singular they to be ungrammatical could be easily seen as trans*phobic, which as progressively-minded college students, we just should not be. English is not one of the languages that has a neutered gender with its pronouns, they come in strictly masculine/feminine terms—in the current age we live in that just needs to be fixed, there are no two ways about it. I've been told by people when asked what pronoun they might prefer that they would prefer "they," and I'm going to respect their wishes, prescriptivism be damned.

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