Grammar, schmammar

Grammar, Shmammar

I was an English teacher for most of my working life. In that time I did a lot of correcting of written English. Now that English grammar has been radically changing in some aspects, some things I once corrected would probably no longer be considered wrong.

Try it for yourself by looking at the following sentences and deciding whether they are ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’ English.

1. He gave it to my friend and I.
2. Columbus sailed to America and the Santa Maria took he there.
3. Me and my friends are going there tomorrow.
4. I’m tired, I need to lay down.
5. The book has lost it’s cover.
6. The biscuit’s are here for everyone.
7. I’m much more happier today than I was yesterday.
8. There is tonnes of erotica around.
9. You have to work much quicker.
10. This is a danger because data has always been at the heart of the education process.
11. The rain is heavier than what it was yesterday.
12. The Poets Union existed for many years in Sydney.

I have come across all of these sentences in one form or another, even in broadsheet newspapers, ABC radio and university websites, an ESL teachers’ union flyer, a corporate kitchen (No. 6), an editor at prestigious literary publisher Faber and Faber (no. 8), a speech by the very NSW Director-General of Education herself (no. 10, and if reported correctly in the Sydney Morning Herald, she repeated the mistake another two times).

My guess, or prejudice, is that most people under 45 reading them will probably tend to see them as correct except for the crass second sentence (which I once heard said by a young presenter on local ABC radio in the mid-90s).

It is interesting that my Word ‘grammar checker’ has marked the mistakes in the first eight sentences but not in the last four. One wonders who wrote the software for the grammar checker.

In my view as an ex-English teacher all the sentences are wrong. (Or maybe that should be ‘wrong’?)
Here are the, previously, correct versions, and the grammatical reasons in parentheses:

1. He gave it to my friend and me. (‘Me’ is the correct accusative or dative case, ‘I’ is nominative case, i.e. should only be used as the subject of a sentence as in ‘I gave it to him’).

2. …and the Santa Maria took him there. (Ditto for accusative ‘him’ versus nominative ‘he’).

3. My friends and I are going there tomorrow. (As for No. 1, ‘me’ is accusative, ‘I’ nominative case and thus correct here where it is part of the subject; ‘my friends and I’ is of course also more polite than ‘I and my friends’, although the latter is still grammatically correct).

4. I’m tired, I need to lie down. (‘Lie’ is the correct intransitive verb, ‘lay’ is either past tense of ‘lie’ as in ‘he lay there stiff as a corpse’, or a separate transitive verb, as in ‘hens lay eggs’).

5. The book has lost its cover. (‘Its’ is the correct possessive/genitive form of ‘it’; ‘it’s’ is an abbreviated form of ‘it is’, as in ‘It’s a fine day today’.)

6. The biscuits are here for everyone. (A plural noun like ‘biscuits’ has no apostrophe before the final ‘s’ when simply signifying plurality. Apostrophes usually indicate either the possessive case, as in ‘a biscuit’s taste is different to a tomato’s’, or abbreviations, cf. No. 5).

7. I’m much happier today than I was yesterday. (‘more’ is redundant since ‘happier’ is already the comparative form of the adjective ‘happy’).

8. There are tonnes of erotica around. (‘Tonnes’ being a plural noun must take a plural verb).

9. You have to work much more quickly. (‘quickly’ is correct since it is an adverb modifying the verb ‘to work’; ‘quicker’ is the comparative form of the adjective ‘quick’ and would be correct if modifying a noun, e.g. ‘He’s a quicker worker when he’s sober.’)

10. This is a danger because data have always been at the heart of the education process. (‘Data’ is a plural noun of the singular noun ‘datum’ and thus the plural verb ‘have’ is needed; the same, by the way, also goes for other plural nouns from the Latin of Greek: ‘media’, ‘criteria’ and ‘phenomena’ are now often used as singular nouns versus their original singular forms ‘medium’, ‘criterion’ and ‘phenomenon’ which now seem to be gradually becoming extinct).

11. The rain is heavier than it was yesterday. (‘what’ is redundant; ‘than’ is a conjunction relating to ‘it was’ rather than to ‘what’)

12. The Poets’ Union existed for many years in Sydney. (The apostrophe after Poets denotes the possessive case: the Union belonged to the Poets).

It could be argued that the last two sentences are not so much grammatical or orthographic mistakes as simply changes in usage and convention. I would tend to agree and thus no longer mark them as ‘wrong’ in any student’s essay.

I regard all the others as more serious shifts in grammar and usage since they raise serious questions regarding the consistency of usage or grammatical rules and regarding differentiation of meaning.

Thus, for example, if ‘he gave it to my friend and I’ is now almost acceptable even among the educated, then, logically, ‘he gave it to I’ (or even ‘took he there’) should also be considered correct. At this point in time however it is not yet acceptable, and thus a strange and logically inconsistent gap has opened up between a case of one object (I, he: not OK) and more than one object in the first person only (my friend and I: OK).

All this is confusing indeed, especially for English language learners.

The possibility of differentiations of meaning is also lost when we oversimplify language and lose the previous differences between pronominal cases of the nominative and accusative/dative (I/me, he/him, Nos. 1-3), transitive and intransitive verbs (lay/lie, No. 4) or even lose adverbs completely (quick/quickly, No. 7).

I remember a new young teacher coming back into the staff room from his ESOL class for Asian university students and seriously asking us: ‘What’s a verb?’ It seems an English teacher today can ‘teach English’ without knowing what a verb is. Next, biology teaching without knowing what a cell is, physics without atoms, chemistry without molecules? I guess it’s now: when in doubt, just google it, mate.

Should we care about any of this at all? And even if we do care, will our caring make any difference? Is caring about any of this not some form of the curmudgeonly pedantry typically associated with retired teachers, or, worse, snobbery? Nobody can control the organic development of a language, an immensely complex, often extremely interesting and creative, process dependent on huge historical and cultural shifts. All we can do is watch, record, wonder, adapt, and, for some of us with regard to some specific aspects of this process, regret the losses. As teachers, writers and poets, we can also, perhaps quaintly, refuse to acquiesce in those cases in which language seems in danger of losing differentiation, logic, coherence, efficiency, subtlety of meaning.


~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on November 12, 2012.

2 Responses to “Grammar, schmammar”

  1. Actually my problem with the last sentence was that I thought it would call for the present perfect tense on account of the »for« – but then I realised that would depend on whether the Poets’ Union still exists or whether it was disbanded at some point. As far as the other sentences are concerned, I, at least in part, blame a certain English teacher for my being able to spot the mistakes ;^)

    • Thanks, Anselm, and good to hear from you again. Yes, the old (Sydney) Poets Union unfortunately disbanded about two years ago. Glad to see you got the perfect score, so I’ll have to give you your ‘Eins’.

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