Three small niggles with grammar

There are two takes on grammar. According to one, grammar is a set of rules which we should stick to if we do not wish to appear uncultured. So anyone saying ‘I seen’ or ‘I done’ can quickly be identified as ill-educated.  Some of those who look at grammar in this way can be remarkably inflexible, as if ‘the rules of grammar’ had been also brought down the mountain by Moses.

This was the take on grammar I encountered at school. We were taught that we should not begin a sentence with ‘and’ or ‘because’ and that split infinitives were to be avoided. The most famous split infinitive is probably ‘to boldly go’, and it seemed to work for Captain Kirk. But leaving him to one side . . .

The second take on grammar is that it is a description of how a given language works. Since each language is different each will require its own grammar if it is to be adequately accounted for. This was the approach to grammar I encountered  university. It soon became apparent that the grammar of English we were taught at school left a lot to be desired since it was based on Latin grammar and the two languages – English and Latin – are radically different.

Despite all this enlightenment, small grammatical points (in the first sense) can cause us problems when writing. Three examples.

Grammatical number

The custom is to follow a singular noun with a singular verb, a plural noun with a plural verb:

the boy smiles, the men smile. But sometimes following this rule can sound wrong.

‘A troupe of monkeys attacks the tourists’.  This is ‘correct’. There is only one troupe – singular – so the verb should be singular too. The trouble is the singular verb comes immediately after a plural noun and sentences like this can trouble the ear. It is always possible to express the idea differently, my preferred way out, so that the problem does not arise.

The Subjunctive

This is not used as often as it was in the past but it can crop up, for example, in association with the word ‘if’.

Which do we prefer, ‘if I was,’ or ‘if I were’? In direct speech the answer is usually obvious: what would your character say? When it comes to indirect speech it will boil down to the preference of the writer, though I often feel that the subjunctive feels a little bit precious now.

(It is interesting that in Spanish, that very user-friendly language, there are not one but two forms of the imperfect subjunctive.)

Who and whom

I am almost incapable of not using ‘whom’ when that is the form which ‘should’ be used. Call me old-fashioned if you will.



8 thoughts on “Three small niggles with grammar

  1. I agree with most of what you say, I hate teaching grammar (to Greeks mostly) of course you have to know the basic structure of a language but I find that my students get really confused by the rules….they do better when I take the rules away and advise them to just let it flow

  2. I have never been a language teacher but I would love to know what you think of the Rosetta Stone claim that using their method you learn a new language as a child does. It seems to me that this claim is false because only children can learn language in this way. The older we get the less we are able to do this and must use other methods as well/instead, including grammar where this will help.

  3. It depends on the learning style of the student, there are seven basic styles of learning, I asses each student individually (which of course is almost impossible in a classroom environment) there is no ‘right’ way to do it…there is only their way. Listening, Speaking, Reading and Writing are usually the natural order in which a baby learns, but not always, and definitely not so as an adult.
    The Seven Learning Styles:
    Visual (spatial):You prefer using pictures, images, and spatial understanding.
    Aural (auditory-musical): You prefer using sound and music.
    Verbal (linguistic): You prefer using words, both in speech and writing.
    Physical (kinaesthetic): You prefer using your body, hands and sense of touch.
    Logical (mathematical): You prefer using logic, reasoning and systems.
    Social (interpersonal): You prefer to learn in groups or with other people.
    Solitary (intra-personal): You prefer to work alone and use self-study.

  4. I learnt a second language as a child (aged 8 to 9) not as a baby. I learned it by the easiest known method (excluding infant learning) according to research. This is called immersion. Basically you live in a community speaking the new language and have absolutely no choice. Believe me, you learn it very quickly.
    I agree, grammar is tricky territory. I have a head full of rules, that I have to force myself to ignore (e.g. never start a sentence – or god forbid a paragraph – with ‘but’). I too find the singular/plural verb after an apparently plural/singular subject difficult and tend to rephrase. BUT I also enjoy books on grammar such as Lyn Truss’s Eats, Shoots and Leaves and I keep Strunk and White by my desk.

  5. I would love to have been immersed in another language, the closest I have come to it being German.

    You will be amazed to learn that I have never heard of Strunk and White. The last book I read on grammar (apart from one I got recently on Anglo-Saxon grammar) was a book by a Danish grammarian called Jesperson

  6. Pingback: ‘Grammar’…Urgh!!! | Victoria.K.Gallagher

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