Sunday, 12 May 2013

Bad Faith Awards

Back in March, 100 academics wrote a letter to the Independent criticising Michael Gove's proposed national curriculum. Gove's cheerleader Toby Young then invented the Bad Grammar Awards with the apparent objective of ridiculing the letter-writers. A case of playing the man (or men and women, if we're going to be pedantic) rather than the ball. The fisking, by the 71 year old Neville Gwynne (who taught Young's offspring Latin and whose grammar book is published by the fogeyish Idler, the sponsor of the awards), was unintentionally funny because in criticising the use of the phrase "too much too young" the old geezer was obviously ignorant of the Specials' song. Most people reading the original letter would have got the reference. Even funnier was a supportive piece in the Evening Standard, headlined "Academics are the very worst for bad grammar". Any any fule kno', "worst" is a superlative so "very" is redundant. A grammar Nazi would have you shot for that.

The point that should shine through is the commonplace that language is constantly in flux, hence the appearance of new words like "fisking" (a point-by-point rebuttal, originally in an email or blog post), the employment of new idioms like "too much too young" (i.e. without a comma after "much"), and the fact that deliberately breaking grammatical rules for effect is fine (e.g. "very worst"). There are no rules of grammar as such, merely accepted conventions on usage. At any given time there will be rival conventions, some emerging and others falling into disuse, simply because their purpose is to discriminate between "in" and "out" groups that are themselves evolving. It is reasonable to criticise certain grammatical forms on the grounds of style (e.g. a double-negative like "I didn't do nothing" is clumsy), but if the meaning is clear (which it usually is) then you should engage with the meaning instead of indulging in ad hominem attacks like Toby Young.

An obsession with correct form over effective communication has an obvious authoritarian foundation, not to mention a clear ideological purpose in separating the civilised from the uncultured. Official grammar and vocabulary is often just the slang of the ruling classes. In the middle ages this meant using French instead of English, the language of landowners rather than peasants, hence the continuing high proportion of French idioms in administrative and legal terminology. From the Renaissance onwards it meant using Greek and Latin words and phrases (like ad hominen), and even conforming to Latin conventions in grammar, such as the prohibitions against split infinitives and ending sentences with prepositions. Funnily enough, putting the verb at the end of the sentence never caught on in polite society, possibly because the hoi polloi often did it too: "off to market I be".

The 16th and 17th centuries are regarded as a highpoint in English literature in large part because the language was so fluid, importing foreign terminology and giving national prominence to dialect words (notably in Shakespeare), employing multiple spellings and variable syntax, and generally experimenting with whatever came to hand. The grammar police start to make their appearance as copyright replaces censorship in the early 18th century. The emerging bourgeois idea of manners, which converted traditional Christian ethics into a social commodity (e.g. charity moved from giving alms to inculcating right behaviour), was extended to the performative realms of dress and speech. As the 19th century brought social dislocation and mobility, grammar and vocabulary (more so than accent) became an identifier of class: talking "proper", as Eliza Doolittle would say. In the 20th century, mass media gradually produced a standardised vernacular and an increasingly neutral accent (I'm always amused to hear David Dimbleby's clipped tones from his youth), which has led to an even greater focus on grammar by social conservatives as the last bastion defending us against the estuarial and the immigrant.

Toby Young and his Tory mates probably think they've been clever in showing up the academics, but what they've actually done is highlight that their own worldview is based on separating the rest of us into right sheep and wrong goats, on an essentially trivial basis, which clearly reflects their assumptions about education in general. They want and expect "good" and "bad" to co-exist: Eton, free schools and selected academies as islands of quality amidst the sea of failing state education. Dissenting opinions are dismissed on a technicality. You can almost hear the Govian disdain: "If you disagree with me, you are by definition wrong". It should hardly come as a surprise that Gove's media outriders then employ personalised contempt (Niall Ferguson is another recent example), or that Gove himself appears to view politics wholly in terms of ego. The issue here is not bad grammar but bad faith.

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