Grammaticality is gangsterism

by hexacoto

What better way to understand what is the purpose of grammar than by having to explain it to someone else?

A couple days ago, I met up with a friend to engage in workshopping each other’s writings. She was naturally stronger in Chinese, and I English, and so we both wrote a piece in each other’s weaker language.

I started by editing her poem for grammar. There was a line she used, “My feelings to him,” which I pointed out is ungrammatical. I said, “You could use ‘My feelings ‘for’ him’ or my feelings ‘towards’ him instead.” She asked why can’t she use “to” when “to” and “towards” have the same meaning; a directional preposition?

She asked me, “What is the purpose of grammar? It seems to be getting in the way of communication; people dismiss my speech because they think my grammar is not perfect, but isn’t communication about getting your point across?”

I was stumped; how often does one think about what grammar is for?

A quick search on Google about “Why is grammar important” yielded these common answers: To be able to talk about the language, and for concise, clear communication.

I asked a linguist friend, and he could only conclude why we have grammar, not why is it important. A Chomsky-esque approach would be that language and grammar are innate, then humans naturally create grammar when dealing with language; psychologist Steven Pinker notes that even deaf babies and children exposed to pidgin produce language in a grammatically-consistent manner.

What this means is that grammar is the basis in which we are able to formulate our thoughts in a particular language — a skeleton structure, if you will. Without grammar, we can still strongly feel about a topic with mere words — you only need symbols to hold meaning — but one cannot actively vocalise these thoughts without knowing that structure. From mere feelings, we graft these feelings into actuality and words around the structure that’s innate to us.

But that still does not explain why grammar is important in the way we deem it today. We say that without proper grammar, communication breaks down as meanings are lost. How true is that? Compare these:

“I am baboon.” “I are baboon.” “I am a baboon.”

They all mean the same thing, but the meaning is evidently clear when one hears any of them. The only difference between the first two grammatically-incorrect examples and the latter grammatically-correct one is that people would stop to note that the first two are grammatically-unsound, but the meaning of the sentence otherwise is gleaned regardless. Of course, egregiously grammatically-unsound sentences do impede understanding of meaning, where if one said something like, “Apples red is food favourite me,” and even then most people can still understand that sentence, with some time.

Really, it seems that for the most part, the grammaticality that we’re obsessed with contributes little to the understanding of meaning, but more so to judge people when they deviate from the correct form. We peer pressure each other to conform to a communally-agreed standard and belittle those who don’t, almost akin to gangsterism. Thus you have your pedants who would sneer at the usage of “comprises of” whereas most people don’t even know that it is technically ungrammatical. But ask these pedants why “comprises of” is ungrammatical, most would only be able to tell you that is because what was decided in the past.

But grammaticality is never dictated by what was said in the past — it is always decided by what is agreed upon in the present. It might have been inherited from what people in the past agreed on, but what they agreed on is always susceptible to change and still pending the approval of the current community using it. The pronoun-verb agreements we use today would have been ungrammatical in Middle English, where there were distinctions (“I speak,” “Thou speakest,” “He speaketh,”). Even between dialects in the same time period, what one community sees as grammatical might not be in another; an example today is between African-American Vernacular and General American English speakers. Many AmE speakers would think a speaker of AAVE as being ‘ungrammatical’ or plain wrong, when in fact AAVE has just as many rules governing it as AmE.

Linguists push for a descriptive linguistics stance; one where language is studied as it is used without value judgement, as opposed to a prescriptive one. Yet often it is the lay person that proclaims fire and brimstone should one not use the subjunctive properly, or were a person to mess up ‘who’ and ‘whom’. Funnily enough, that linguist friend tells me an anecdote that on a dating website that asks “Is proper grammar important to you?” he put the answer “No,” but only in the sense that he’s not a prescriptive linguist; you get a case where most everyone else would have indicated “Yes” on that question, linguists, who would be the ones to most academically make comments on grammar, don’t really care that much for “proper grammar.”

So to my friend who made the grammatical mistake, yes I understood what you wanted to say, but I suppose to not let other people judge you as intellectually incapable by mere virtue of your grammar, it is probably best to yield to public pressure and learn “proper grammar.”

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