by Kenneth Francis (June 2019)
The Grammar, Paul Sérusier, 1892
The introductory clause in the title of this essay would be morally dubious, despite being grammatically correct, if it was about cannibal grandchildren deciding what to have for dinner. However, if there was a comma included in the clause (‘Let’s Eat, Grandma!’), it would more normally denote some grandchildren telling their grandmother that they are hungry.
It seems bad grammar can be a matter of life or death (or should that be ‘non-grammar’?). Whatever the term, there is no denying that standards in grammar/punctuation, and English education, have reached an all-time low in some academic institutions. (I write this from my proverbial grammar ‘glasshouse’, so I have to be really careful that the copy is ‘clean’.)
When I started lecturing in print journalism part-time some 25 years ago, one of the toughest subjects for students was grammar. This was during a time when some people didn’t have mobile phones or laptops and when the odd student used the last of the IBM Selectric typewriters in the late 1980s/early 90s.
We’ve come a long way since then, with spell-checking and even grammar/syntax/check programs installed in most computers to do the job for us at the click of a ‘mouse’.
But knowing the rules of grammar is essential to fully understanding the meaning of a sentence or phrase.
Consider the following:
Paul McCartney announces,
“Here’s a song I wrote yesterday.”
(No long-time McCartney fan wants to hear a song he wrote yesterday.)
“Here’s a song I wrote—‘Yesterday’.”
(The dash indicates the song is the 1960s classic.)
Woman without her man is nothing
Woman: without her, man is nothing
(A simple colon and comma change the meaning.)
“The editor”, said the page-designer, “is a fool.”
(This means the editor is a fool, according to the page-designer.)
“The editor said the page-designer is a fool.”
(The absence of commas means the page-designer is a fool, according to the editor.)
The absence of a comma can also be a costly affair for clauses in a company’s contract. In 2017, the New York Times ran a story on a class-action lawsuit about overtime pay for truck drivers: “The dreaded—or totally necessary—Oxford comma, perhaps the most polarizing of punctuation marks”, was at the centre of the lawsuit.
In 2014, three truck drivers sued Oakhurst Dairy, Portland, seeking more than four years’ worth of overtime pay that they had been denied. To cut a long story short, note the lack of a comma in the following state law, which says overtime rules do not apply to:
The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:
(1) Agricultural produce;
(2) Meat and fish products; and
(3) Perishable foods.
The New York Times reporter, Daniel Victor, wrote: “If there were a comma after ‘shipment,’ it might have been clear that the law exempted the distribution of perishable foods.” But the appeals court sided with the drivers, saying the absence of a comma produced enough uncertainty to rule in their favour. (Speaking of favour: In the US in 2014, a FiveThirtyEight survey found approximately 57% of people are pro-Oxford comma, while 43% think the mark is an atrocity.)
But the real atrocity is the low standard of grammar and practical learning in America’s public and higher education. Many critics of the system point to the obsession of political correctness and identity politics distracting students from more important subjects, as well as irrational hatred for old white scribes of the past.
Writing in the Brussels Journal in 2015, English professor Thomas F. Bertonneau said that modern education, including modern higher education, not only denies the existence of truth while obfuscating the difference between ignorance and knowledge; it also rejects the past as unworthy of study except in limited, prescriptive ways, as an object of ridicule or execration.
Bertonneau said: “The English departments of the USA’s colleges and universities now focus almost entirely on contemporary rather than historical material—one may graduate with a baccalaureate in English Literature from numerous colleges and universities without having read Chaucer, Shakespeare, George Eliot, or Henry James, all of whom have become optional where they have not disappeared altogether from the reading-list.”
The writer Jim Goad says that American education these days is not to fill minds with new ideas, but to cleanse them of all unacceptable ideas, no matter how logical, natural, and instinctual those ideas may be. “From preschool all the way through to grad school, American academia is no longer a world of education, but of indoctrination,” he wrote in Taki’s Magazine in 2016. So much for teaching the basics of grammar, English and maths.
When you think of it, it’s not advantageous for the State or big business to educate people with excellent writing and grammatical skills for superior communication, combined with critical perception of world events. Such people are a threat and might eloquently expose corruption, which is rife amongst the wealthy Establishments worldwide; or, worse still, demand higher wages.
However, the absence of a comma is not the biggest offender when the Grammatically Unwashed write emails or text their friends. The biggest offenders worldwide are those who are a catastrophe with the apostrophe.
In her book Eats, Shoots & Leaves, the writer Lynne Truss said: “To those who care about punctuation, a sentence such as ‘Thank God its Friday’ (without the apostrophe) rouses feelings not only of despair but of violence. The confusion of the possessive ‘its’ (no apostrophe) with the contractive ‘it’s’ (with apostrophe) is an unequivocal signal of illiteracy and sets off a Pavlovian ‘kill’ response in the average stickler.”
Another writer who got quite irritated by grammar misuse was the late Keith Waterhouse. In one of his humour pieces, he wrote about the setting up of a society called the Association for the Abolition of the Aberrant Apostrophe—the AAAA. One of the goals of the AAAA was to round up and confiscate superfluous apostrophes from fruit and vegetable stalls where potato’s, tomatoe’s and apple’s are openly on sale.
But it’s not only wrongly placed punctuation marks that are the bane of an English teacher’s life. Sometimes a sentence, written correctly and making sense, can give the wrong meaning. I came across a few examples of this many years ago while working as a subeditor on a news desk. The story was about a man who went out during the week to look for stray animals to place in his rescue shelter behind his house. The journalist who filed the story of a stray dog rescued by the man, wrote: “One night while Mr ‘Smith’ was walking down the Main Street, he spotted a pregnant bitch and brought her home . . .”.
Although the sentence was grammatically and coherently sound, the image conjured up by it was that of a pregnant ‘lady of the night’ out cruising for ‘business’. In another story some years ago, a journalist wrote of a football team which ‘literally took their rivals to the cleaners’ (hopefully they paid for the laundry bill!).
In the Bible, Jesus warns us about being vague in our language and its meaning: “But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.” (Matthew 5:37); also: “Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil . . . ” (Isaiah 5:20)
And what about poetry or words in a song, where the rules of grammar can be broken and where vagueness is justified by artistic merit? A good example of this is the beautiful, but mysterious, lyrics to the 1967 song by Procol Harum, A Whiter Shade of Pale. The second verse of the song reaches the soul but seems impossible to explain intellectually:
She said, “There is no reason
And the truth is plain to see”
But I wandered through my playing cards
And would not let her be
One of sixteen vestal virgins
Who were leaving for the coast
And although my eyes were open
They might just as well have been closed
And so it was that later
As the miller told his tale
That her face, at first just ghostly
Turned a whiter shade of pale
What would a robot make of such strange lyrics? How confusing would it be for such a machine to work out the semantics of any sentence? (the meaning of language, as opposed to its grammatical rules and structure). Would such a robot understand irony or sarcasm? It’s plausible it could understand syntax, but to say to a robot, in an endearing way, ‘I’m going to kill you’, could have devastating consequences if the robot took it literally and defended itself by killing the human; or if a gastrobot (one that eats food) is with the grandchildren when they shout, ‘Let’s eat, grandma’! Although it could be argued that the robot could pick up on ironic facial expressions or a pause at the word ‘eat’, it could also misinterpret them and act accordingly.
Or consider the Chinese Room argument, devised by the philosopher John Searle. The argument is a thought experiment in which someone who knows only English sits alone in a room following English instructions for manipulating strings of Chinese characters. The manipulation of these strings of characters appears to those outside the room as though the person inside the room understands Chinese.
Searle argues that the thought experiment underscores the fact that computers merely use syntactic rules to manipulate symbol strings, but have no understanding of the meaning of semantics. Basically, his argument goes something like this: imagine a native English speaker who knows no Chinese locked in a room full of boxes of Chinese symbols (a database) together with a book of instructions for manipulating the symbols (the program).
Imagine that people outside the room send in other Chinese symbols which, unknown to the person in the room, are questions in Chinese (the input). And imagine that by following the instructions in the program the man in the room is able to pass out Chinese symbols which are correct answers to the questions (the output). The program enables the person in the room to pass the Turing Test for understanding Chinese but he does not understand a word of Chinese.
Searle goes on to say:
The point of the argument is this: if the man in the room does not understand Chinese on the basis of implementing the appropriate program for understanding Chinese, then neither does any other digital computer solely on that basis because no computer, qua computer, has anything the man does not have.
Aside from AI arguments, hopefully robotic attitudes to teaching will fade quickly and some sanity will again enter the education system and revive practical subjects like English literature and grammar. One wonders whatever happed to teaching the three ‘Rs’ of reading, writing and arithmetic? One also wonders what grandma would make out of all this? Or should such a politically incorrect aesthetically negative, ageist title of ‘grandma’ be replaced by something less ‘offensive’?
Don’t rule it out, as there has been some talk on the Silicon Valley grapevine of A.I. being installed in computer programs to make them politically correct. These programs would work in conjunction with grammar-checking systems and what is essentially a “political correctness check”. Such software would also decode acronyms and estimating how long it will take to read a written document. With that in mind, altogether now: “Let’s eat, Glam-Ma!”
Kenneth Francis is a Contributing Editor at New English Review. For the past 20 years, he has worked as an editor in various publications, as well as a university lecturer in journalism. He also holds an MA in Theology and is the author of The Little Book of God, Mind, Cosmos and Truth (St Pauls Publishing) and, most recently, The Terror of Existence: From Ecclesiastes to Theatre of the Absurd (with Theodore Dalrymple).
Follow NER on Twitter @NERIconoclast