GRAMMAR is a strange and wonderful thing. It is also fuzzy. At least the word “grammar” is. So fuzzy, in fact, that linguists rarely invoke it, other than in the broad meaning of “language”. They tend instead to plump for the narrower terms. And so morphology deals with the bits of words, like affixes and roots, that contribute to meaning; syntax looks at how morphemes are arranged in utterances; semantics hones in on meaning, be it of single words or more elaborate linguistic constructs; finally, pragmatics tries to understand how context in which words appear affects their interpretation. (Some linguists—a notoriously fractious bunch—will no doubt take exception to this taxonomy.)
So, is there anything sensible to be said about grammar? Theorists’ finicky distinctions aside, few would object that it is a set of rules that govern the way bits of speech come together to become meaningful utterances. That, of course, raises the question of who sets these rules. Here the bickering begins. Some institutions, notably the French Academy, seem to think they do. Then there are the linguists. Mercifully, they rarely claim to be rule setters. But they do often give the impression of believing that they know them better than “ordinary” speakers.
True, language scholars pore over pages of books, peruse transcripts, listen to endless reels of recorded speech. If all goes to plan, they will come up with a set of rules that predicts how non-linguists actually speak. But it is, at best, a belated snapshot. Should enough people run afoul of these theoretical findings, they do not deserve to have their wrists slapped—with a rule or anything else. Rather, it means that the linguists described a grammar as it once was, not as it now is.
Both académiciens and grammarians may, then, have got things the wrong way round. Grammar is subject to majority rule, not autocratic decree. If a speaker does not abide by the same rules as most others, he is, by definition, not speaking the same language. It does not matter one bit that he happens to be a member of an academy or a prominent linguist; minorities are excluded. (More precisely, no two people, let alone all the members of a community, follow the exact same set of grammatical rules; the key is a big enough overlap.)
National Grammar Day can, therefore, be viewed as celebrating consensus and inveighing against tyranny (other than the tyranny of the majority that is language). Now, here is something everyone, not just language buffs, can cheer.
Mar 4th 2011, 18:12 by J.P.
Watch it, anyways
HERE’S something I hadn’t known: first, that some people consider the use of anyways to mark an ill-educated boob (I’d have just thought it casual). Second, according to Gabe at Motivated Grammar, that anyways is an “adverbial genitive”, and so in this form is grammatically equivalent to sometimes and always. I’d never thought about how that s got there, but now I see that that genitive s is just a grammatical sibling of the possessive ‘s in Mary’s house. Why did always become mandatory, sometimes become two-way (“sometime” for the adjective, as in “a sometime grammar pundit”, and “sometimes” for the adverb, as in “I pontificate on grammar sometimes”), and anyway become a prescriptivist shibboleth? Gabe doesn’t know, and I don’t either, but there are the facts. The linguistic fact is that there’s nothing wrong with anyways, but the sociological suggestion is that you should use anyways only in the company of people who already know you aren’t an ill-educated boob.