If you no longer think it’s wrong to split an infinitive, or stand a sentence with ‘And’, or end a sentence with a preposition, do you still hold back in your writing because some of your readers might think you’ve made a mistake?
Should you care that they’ll think the worse of you, and stop reading your book or, worse, not buy your next one?
These thoughts were prompted by my attendance at this year’s English Grammar Day at the British Library on 3 July. It has a focus towards teachers, but is an excellent annual occasion for anyone interested in grammar. A message in recent years has been that several of what we thought were rules of grammar simply aren’t – they’re either plain wrong or just preferences of usage.
I never believed in the ‘no preposition at the end of a sentence’ rule, because of Churchill’s famous demolition of that ‘rule’, and also having learned German at school and seeing how in that cousin language it is in fact mandatory to end many sentences with prepositions. But it has taken me till now to accept that it’s wholly acceptable to gaily split an infinitive. And that starting a sentence with a conjunction is fine if it suits what you want to say.
The problem comes with your less enlightened readers. Will they mark you down?
I recommend the English Grammar Day – it costs only a few pounds, so look it up on the BL website (www.bl.uk). To show you the range of subjects covered, this year the speakers were Devyani Sharma, of Queen Mary University of London, on the development of English across the world, eg in India and Singapore; Lucy Dipper, of City University in London, on ‘Grammar in the speech and language therapy clinic’; Marcello Giovanelli, of Aston University, on ‘Knowing about language: what, why and how?’; Eleanor Trafford, who teaches English at Bradford Grammar School, on ‘Getting your clause into grammar in the secondary classroom’; the splendidly argumentative Geoff Pullum, of Edinburgh University, whose talk was entitled’ ‘If doctors knew medical science like writing critics know grammar, you’d be dead’; and Oliver Kamm (pictured), who writes in the Times on grammar every Saturday , on ‘Grammar guidance in the media: the search for certainty’.
The day finished with an ‘Any Questions’ –style panel discussion chaired by the always entertaining expert on Jane Austen John Mullan.
One of Geoff Pullum’s themes was that many of the so-called rules of grammar are the inventions of ill-informed people. Oliver Kamm argued that the persistence of these rules is largely the fault of ill-informed pundits in the media.
This was all liberating. But it doesn’t answer the question of whether the writer should worry about those less liberated readers …
I used to fuss about less and fewer. I applauded M&S (was it them?) when they introduced a ‘10 items or fewer’ lane at checkouts to cater for those of us who deplored ’10 items or less’.
But I’m weakening. The other day I was listening to Elvis singing ‘Amazing Grace’, and then the next day I heard it again, beautifully sung by Sol3 Mio (listen to them on YouTube if you don’t know them), and of course it contains the lines
“When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we’d first begun.”
If John Newton can say less instead of fewer, and produce one of the greatest hymns ever written, then who am I to carp? I know that less fits the metre and fewer doesn’t. But I no longer think it matters so much.
But you may disagree …
The unanswerable question is whether it matters to your reader, and if it does whether that puts your reader off reading you any more. And if that happens whether it matters to you.
Patron saint of pedants: St James the Fewer (tweet yesterday from Ian Power (@IHPower))
I think we all know how he felt.
Note to self: email finished novels to own address. Twice.
Every four years we have to get used to two new verbs: to medal and to podium. Those of us who feel we disapprove (even if we’re not sure why) can comfort ourselves with the thoughts that (a) they are used, and it’s usage that counts in English, and (b) they only seem to be in use when the Olympics come round.
But as they are verbs, how are we to we spell their different verbal forms?
‘Medal’ is easy. We can look at ‘pedal’, and using its forms we can get to
- He, she or it medals (What kind of Olympian qualifies as ‘it’? Best scrub that.)
- We are medalling
- You medalled.
These sound right, and they look right.
But how do we conjugate ‘podium’?
- He or she podiums: fine.
- But are we podiuming, or podiumming?
- Have you podiumed, or podiummed?
‘Podiumed’ looks as if it ought to be pronounced poh-dee-oomed, and ‘podiuming’ as poh-dee-oo-ming. But the double ‘m’ in ‘podiummed’ and ‘podiumming’ looks bizarre.
Is there a word in use we can copy, like ‘pedal’ for ‘medal’? How about ‘drum’? That would take us back to ‘podiumming’ and ‘podiummed’. Which get worse every time I look at them.
One answer is: Fortunately these are synonyms, so if you really have to write one of these sporting neologisms, use ‘medal’. Only use ‘podium’ in speech ….
Crime writers beware … Especially if you’re half of a whodunit-writing duo, appearing at a literary festival, and you’ve just killed off your successful sleuth, famous for his knowledge of poisons. Let last night’s short story on Radio 4 in their ‘The Crime Writer at the Festival’ series be a warning. ‘A Marriage of Inconvenience’, 14 Minutes, available on I-Player at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07m4v8n for the next 29 days.
I came across the following quote from the poet, novelist and critic Randall Jarrell:
…a novel is a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it…
(From The Unread Book, which I can’t find a link to anywhere.)
I found this strangely encouraging. I suppose the trick is to make sure it has exactly the right thing wrong with it…
This week on Radio 4 in the mornings you can hear a chunk of Virgil’s Aeneid, translated by no less than Seamus Heaney, read by no less than Sir Ian McKellen. And then, a mere 45 minutes later, you can listen to nothing less than Jane Eyre.
A few weeks ago Radio 4 serialised Sir Antony Sher reading extracts of Year of the Fat Knight – The Falstaff Diaries, published earlier this year. This is Antony Sher’s diary account of how he came to play Falstaff for the RSC: how he overcame initial doubts to accept the role, then how he prepared for it, and finally its opening in Stratford. It’s a most interesting account of how a leading actor sets about taking on such a part.
It’s notable too for his enormous appreciation of Shakespeare’s greatness. The book is illustrated by several of the author’s own drawings and paintings.
We see how he struggles to see how to play Falstaff. We read how he sets about learning his lines (not easy, but sheer hard work by the sound if it), and the slog, fun and, yes, drama of rehearsals. We share in the tension and exhilaration of the first night.
Passages that I particularly enjoyed relate his experiences filming The Hobbit in New Zealand; his emotions during a private tour of Westminster Abbey; the discovery among a pile of old rehearsal props of a crutch he had used many years before when playing Richard III; a description of what it’s like backstage during a performance at Stratford; some reflections on why some of the great actors of the past haven’t taken on the role of Falstaff; and the fireworks marking Shakespeare’s 450th birthday at Stratford, during the plays’ run.
It’s a fascinating glimpse into the world of top-quality theatre. Published by Nick Hern Books Ltd ISBN 978 1 84842 461 2 RRP £16-99