Nuthin wrong with grammar what folks use

Dr JohnsonThe ideological permissiveness of our age goes beyond sexual perversion, outlandish clothes and body art. It extends to language, an area where it arguably does the greatest damage.

Anything goes, nothing is incorrect provided it’s used widely is an approach reducing language to plebiscite – if enough people use it, it’s ipso facto correct. Such populism is guaranteed to destroy linguistic discipline and, by ricochet, in due course any other.

Not only does disciplined usage reflect a disciplined mind, but it also has a moral aspect. For someone insisting on correct words and grammar thereby rejects relativism. Not everything is to be left to personal choice, such a pedant implies. Absolutes exist. Things can be right or wrong, and the norms of rightness must be set by an outside authority.

The outside authority in language doesn’t have to be an actual institution, like the French Academy. Simply the standards set over centuries by highly literate elites would suffice.

However, if one tags the suffix -ism on to ‘elite’, one gets one of the three mortal sins of modernity, those that have replaced the outdated seven: elitism, discrimination and discernment. Espousing any one of them will make one highly suspect at a Notting Hill soirée. Espousing all three will turn the wretch into a social pariah tout court.

Thomas Mann famously said that all intellectual attitudes are latently political. I’m not sure about that, but it’s true that a person’s political convictions can usually be inferred from his ideas on subjects that ostensibly have nothing to do with politics.

Hence a linguistic rigorist is likely to be conservative (a word I generally use interchangeably with ‘intelligent’) in politics as well. Conversely, show me a permissive linguistic populist, and I’ll show you a leftie. There may exist rare exceptions to the first statement, but not to the second.

Oliver Kamm, the resident language guru at The Times, is a case in point. As a committed leftie, Ollie wages war on tradition in anything. Hence he welcomes every linguistic perversion because he senses viscerally that such permissiveness promotes cultural and social egalitarianism, thereby adding another twig to the pyre of our civilisation.

This is how he once summarised his linguistic philosophy: “[Grammar] has many rules and the way to find out what they are is to examine how native speakers use their own language.”

Exactly which native speakers are we talking about, Ollie? Tattooed Millwall fans? Smug Times columnists? The average of the two? Since, on this evidence, there’s little intellectual difference, the grammatical extremes must also be converging.

In today’s paper, young Ollie resumes hostilities in his on-going war against Simon Heffer who, unlike him, is an intelligent man and therefore a prescriptive, as opposed to descriptive, grammarian. (Dr Johnson is an implicit target too.)

As a test case, Ollie chose a sentence written by Daniel Finkelstein: “It isn’t much good for anyone… but I think for we Jews particularly not.” Even anyone devoid of recondite expertise in such matters but simply blessed with an ear for English would know that in this sentence ‘us Jews’ would be correct, while ‘we Jews’ is jarring and illiterate.

Not Ollie, and one wonders if Lord Finkelstein’s position as one of The Times editors encourages Ollie to utter such sycophantic panegyrics as “Daniel takes some convincing that he is a grammatical genius; but he is.” Not on the evidence of that sentence, he isn’t.

Like most ideologues of linguistic license, Ollie relies on an argumentum ad populum for vindication, something he calls “evidence of usage”. In this case, he refers to Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage citing such errors in works by Shakespeare and Hardy.

Yet quoting great writers’ solecisms in support of grammatical populism is disingenuous. Shakespeare et al create their own language universes in which they are the demiurges establishing all the rules.

Sometimes they use bad grammar on purpose, to achieve a stylistic effect. Sometimes they do so out of carelessness, caused, say, by that second sherry before dinner, time pressure or the late hour of the day. Either way, simple mortals haven’t earned the right to the same latitude that great writers enjoy and silly mortals like Kamm demand.

Dazzling the reader with technical terminology is another trick Ollie uses, as if to imply that his championship of license is caused by conviction rather than illiteracy or a tin ear. Therefore we’re treated to an explanation of what appositive constructions are and how they are exempt from the generalities put forth by Simon Heffer and other normative grammarians.

It’s true that Lord Finkelstein’s ‘we Jews’ is an appositive construction. It’s also true that in some instances appositive constructions permit the otherwise eccentric use of the accusative case. But Finkelstein’s sentence Ollie cites isn’t such an instance. It’s plain incorrect.

Still, what’s one awkward sentence among friends? What’s worth discussing here is the general philosophy, not this or that particular. And according to Kamm’s philosophy the title of this article is perfectly acceptable.

It isn’t. Since Ollie is fond of technical terms, it’s a rhetorical device known as reductio ad absurdum. But Ollie’s own absurdities are well-nigh irreducible.


2 thoughts on “Nuthin wrong with grammar what folks use”

  1. “We have the power to excavate questions that explore the values we want our administration to uphold.”
    — Karla Holloway, James B. Duke Professor of English, Duke University

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