During the Today news programme on BBC Radio 4 this morning there was a feature about grammar. Or, to be more precise, bad grammar. The discussion was inspired by The Bad Grammar Awards due to be presented today. The awards are intended to alert people to the decline in grammatical standards, but the discussion quickly turned to a ‘left’ v. ‘right’ debate on how strict English standards should be.
The speaker from the ‘left’, Professor Michael McCarthy of the University of Nottingham, opined that English had a ‘plurality of grammars’: a grammar for speaking; a grammar for writing; a grammar for broadcasting; and so on. This statement struck a chord with me. Having studied many languages over the years, what distinguishes English – and what I love about it – is its great dynamism, a dynamism that both informs and reflects the underlying culture. I admire the ingenuity of text language and the utility of global business English as much as the finest prose. If we were to have an ‘official’ grammar, who would be the officials? Straitjacketing the language straitjackets the culture, the society and the economy. Just look at modern France with its Académie. There is a reason English has become a global lingua franca.
I know many won’t agree. Professor McCarthy spoke of the ‘pif’ or ‘public irritation factor’ that occurs when someone persistently misuses certain words or forms. Some people can’t abide a dangling participle even though the alternative might sound stiff, convoluted or just plain wrong. But, ultimately, usage will decide what’s acceptable and what’s not. That’s the only standard I need.