Why grammar pedants are wrong

I’ve always had beef with pedants. I work with language and I help companies to use it better. But I’m mostly interested in what language reveals about organisations and their culture, and what happens to that culture when you change their language.

What often stops me in my tracks is a language pedant. I’m in the midst of training about tone of voice and I’ll face questions like “can you really start a sentence with ‘and’ or “surely you can’t put a preposition at the end of a sentence?”

Sometimes people want a chance to show off their ‘knowledge’, after all we all secretly enjoy catching out the expert in the room. Sometimes they’re genuinely confused about what the ‘rules’ are, hanging onto outdated ideas from school.

So I was intrigued by Oliver Kamm’s (columnist from The Times and reformed pedant) and Dr Laura Wright’s (University of Cambridge) recent conversation on Radio 4’s Word of Mouth 

They argued that grammar is what people actually say and do, and that there’s no rule-making body. There are rules of grammar, like word order and inflection for tense, but we don’t usually get them wrong, unless we’re drunk. Linguists see language as resilient and intrinsic to who we are, not constantly under threat. And that there’s no grammar apocalypse lurking around the corner.

Many people, from Defoe to Swift, have worried about the decline in standards of literacy. But Oliver wondered what’s the golden age they want to go back to? In fact, standards of literacy have never been higher. People worry that language is changing, which of course it always is – it’s a self-regulating system, and how we understand each other doesn’t break down.

Wright argued that rules actually arise from people wanting to give advice on writing style. For example, Thomas Sheridan was an out-of-work actor in Drury Lane in the 1780s, on the verge of bankruptcy. He set up a series of lecture tours around Britain, telling people who were moving from the farms to the cities, that they weren’t speaking elegantly or politely. He looked to neo-Latin, a written form with fixed rules (unlike spoken Medieval Latin), to help these new city-dwellers fit in with the middle classes. And that’s what led people to believe there are right and wrong ways to do things.

Now generations of schoolteachers have perpetuated these ‘rules’, and so pedants tend to think there is a right way, without asking what ‘rightness’ is. In fact language is full of variation, of differences in style, and that’s normal. Wright said rather than assimilating sets of rules, language teaching should be about helping people to adapt their register, to write well for a range of different audiences.

The pedantic impulse is wrong – because it’s all about finding fault with how native speakers use their language. What we should be exploring is what we can do with language. There’s amazing depth and range in our language and that’s something we should embrace and enjoy.

So are you a grammar pedant or should we chuck the language rule book out?