Simple English ~ Nicola Prentis

Thoughts on ELT, English and whatever else comes into my head

Grammar – prescribe, proscribe or innovate?

Grammar – an ever evolving thing for which the rules no longer apply. We’re free to innovate and all those fusty old rules are for people who think in black and white terms. They’re not for us vanguards of the English Way.

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Wanna say ‘wanna’ – be my guest. Feel like using the Past Simple instead of the Present Perfect e.g. Did you see The Hobbit yet? – go right ahead, it’s American English. Dabbling in double negatives – I don’t think nothing of that either since it’s a kind of regional English. Feel like dropping the past tense altogether and just adding words like Yesterday as a past adverbial – ah, not so much.

Because the latter is an error Non Native Speakers make, teachers must correct it at some point. Not every time perhaps but students who carry on using the present tense for everything won’t usually pass through the levels and the same people that rally for the freedom of expression and individuality will be the ones who administer the tests that show these students their place.

I’ve, more than once, sat in a staffroom with teachers, so conditioned by the language school system and coursebooks, that they created tests deliberately to catch students out who fail to follow the rules. This is an extreme example but I think a lot of people are comfortable with the idea of levels, markers of those levels and achievement of the markers.

If you’re a Native Speaker though, you’re free to make as many mistakes as you like because that’s allowing for variation. That’s modern. That’s knowing that language will change and usage will lead to the breaking of formerly strict rules.

Personally, I  disagree. I’ve spent about three years getting myself out of the horrible habit of saying ‘less’ when it should be ‘fewer’. I didn’t know any better until someone pointed it out to me. For me, finding out there’s a rule is tantamount to following it. I’ve just discovered that,  from a writing guide on syntax, when comparing things, it’s like + noun and as if + subj + vb. I immediately went and did a ‘like’ search in a manuscript and amended all my ignorant errors.

So, of course, as I get to know Twitter better, I’m increasingly irritated by the hashtag “innovation”. There’s something to be said for the use of them evolving beyond the original program design. But if that evolution is completely pointless and irritatingly screen clogging, why fight to keep doing it?

I’ll admit I used to have this gripe about emoticons which I now use with abandon. I used to think they were the text equivalent of holding up a “clap now” or “laugh now” board to a studio audience just in case the presenter’s jokes fell flat. Actually, having been in a studio audience for the very unfunny Conan O’Brien those signs were every bit as irritating as you’d expect. However, I’ve come to see emoticons as softeners which is increasingly necessary the more we interact with complete strangers online; people who don’t know us well enough to know when we’re being sarcastic, ironic, silly or just argumentative for the sake of it. I am often the first and always doing the last – without emoticons I’d have no online buddies at all.

But hashtagging has no purpose other than signalling the joke for the insecure comedian. They defend their right to innovate and mold the usage of this early Twitter grammar but for what purpose? Wouldn’t you be annoyed if every time someone you were talking to did a Basil Brush “Boom Boom” after a not particularly funny joke? Or the other crutch of the office bore – the hi hat cymbal noise?

If  I was proscribing hashtag usage on Twitter, I’d say only use them according to this article on the Dos and Don’ts.

If I was prescribing them, I’d have to add that many people use them in flexible ways to add emphasis or highlight their humour or sort of summarise their Tweet’s point.

If I was being innovative, I’d have to come up with something a lot better and more imaginative.

Hashtagging is a sort of tagging function in Twitter. Why is no-one putting these side splitting tags on blog posts? How has this innovation not occurred before?

As it happens, I’m not very pro grammar correction in EFL. I think a lot of damage has been done with grammar based syllabi. Students often expect to be corrected so I do sometimes, even though I know it’s unlikely to make a difference (especially if I think how long it took me to stop say ‘less people’), and I often point out that Native Speakers often make the error they’ve just made e.g. The thing what annoys me about x is z.

Maybe NNS are just innovating when they say “When I will go…” or “I don’t can…”. How would I know? I’ve never thought to ask them. Those constructions make a lot of sense. I once had a brilliant trainer who pointed out that you can replace smurf numbers of verbs with some combination of ‘get’. A genius innovation.

Maybe, since the human urge seems to be to rebel against proscription and eschew fusty old language rules, the students are fighting for linguistic expression.

I’ll check out their Twitter feeds, see how they’re using hashtags and then think about whether or not to correct them.

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4 comments on “Grammar – prescribe, proscribe or innovate?

  1. Ebefl
    February 4, 2013

    I enjoy you thoroughly. Keep posting…highly entertaining.

    • Nicola
      February 4, 2013

      Awwww, shucks. I am almost blushing!

  2. Pingback: Grammar – prescribe, proscribe or innovate? by Nicola Prentis | BELTA – The Belgian English Language Teachers Association

  3. Pingback: Cliché – The Teacher’s Friend | Simple English ~ Nicola Prentis

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This entry was posted on February 3, 2013 by in ELT, Learning English and tagged , , , .
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