Grammar rules, OK.

Breakages will be reported, criticised and condemned.

I never learned much in the way of English grammar.  Plenty of French, Latin and Greek, but very little English.  I’ve largely forgotten the former three, and now I just struggle with my native tongue and frankly the natives can get pretty damned restless if not outright hostile.  For some reason, there are two things which bring out the tyrants, the complainers, the rabid proselytisers – grammar and spelling.

When I was a kid I was frequently told that there was no such word as ‘can’t’.  Not even finding a suitably recent and liberal dictionary containing the fabulous ‘can’t’ could put an end to the assertion.  There simply was no such word, no matter how many people used it, in speech and print.  Now roll on a few years, to my teens, and those immortal words: to boldly go where no man has gone before.  I don’t care that everywhere they went there were clearly people who had arrived earlier, it was the split-infinitive that troubled me.

Or, strictly speaking, failed to trouble me.  I like to boldly go.  I try to imagine that opening as the grammarians might have it – to go boldly – and I can see myself switching channels.  And back when I first encountered all that bold adventure, there was no remote on the TV so I would have had to have got out of the chair…

The trouble with grammar is the collision, with resultant debris, between a pattern of rules and the fluid reality of people communicating.  People like rules, like patterns and, as someone who once earned a living as a scientist, I like rules and patterns, but language does not follow grammar, grammar is the attempt to slap rules on later.  The one size fits all garment that inevitably sags or pinches.

In the dim and distant past, I learned about verbs – regular verbs and irregular verbs, the ones that follow the rule, and then all the special cases for the ones that don’t.  The very terminology is misleading because the regular verbs are the ones that barely get used.  The irregular verbs have been ground down, knocked about and generally dented by frequent exercise, constant use and regular abuse.

And so the language changes.  Language is like that – words, phrases and grammar of my parents’ generation often seem a bit stilted, and my grandparents’ generation… well that’s some foreign language that sounds close to English.

The trouble is that language changes as if change is the only thing that matters, a crazy race to be somewhere else, whilst those grammatical rules are slow to adapt.  The rules, by my crude and unsubstantiated estimate, describe the language at a time somewhere between my grandparents and my parents and, like me, are a bit too padded around the waist and likely to get out of breath if they have to run too hard to catch up.

I don’t dislike grammar – it’s just a set of rules best treated as guidelines (to borrow from Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean). Grammar doesn’t define language, it’s a report done later to explain what happened, to hide the uncomfortable bits, to bring the erratic into line. Forget Disney, let’s borrow from the legal world – the rules of grammar are simply sentencing guidelines. And remember that if you deviate too far from those guidelines there will be complaints, protests and appeals to a higher authority that the sentence is wrong and ought to be corrected. There is no deeper sin, except to fail to get the spelling rite.

Those who treat grammar carelessly, who choose to explore beyond and to boldly go where no writer has writ before, they must expect to be hounded mercilessly. If you do it right, and well, then applause and acclaim await, but pick poorly and you are off to literary obscurity.

There’s a quote I like, attributed to Pablo Picasso (but possibly falsely), that I’ve seen doing the rounds on social media lately –  Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.

Syntax, anyone?

OMP Admin Note:  Mark Huntley-James writes science fiction and fantasy on a small farm in Cornwall, where he lives with his partner and a menagerie of cats, poultry and sheep.

Huntley-James has two urban fantasy novels out on Kindle – “Hell Of A Deal” ( ) and “The Road To Hell” (  ) – and is working on a third.

“He can be found online at his blog, and occasionally on that new-fangled social media.”

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2 thoughts on ““Grammar, What Big Teeth You Have” ~~ by Mark Huntley-James

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