Secure syntax and moral excellence

The picture of a pot purple petunias against
a background of a yellow rose creeper
cannot be uploaded because of my slow
Internet connection. Never mind. It has
nothing to do with the blog at all.

I had an English Literature teacher in my senior years at school who deplored those who mistook “moral squeamishness for virtue”.

I am slightly amused now to think back to our seventeen year-old selves for whom the pursuit of virtue only occasionally ranked high on our list of priorities. Or perhaps I should say, a semblance of the pursuit, or embodiment, of virtue. In truth, we were more innocent than virtuous. Some of us had already shed more innocence than others, and had begun to discover the libidinous delights permeating the great Literature of our language. We experienced considerable vicarious pleasure in finding the more salacious descriptive passages in novels, and giggled at all the bawdy bits in that part of our syllabus devoted to Shakespeare.

I am also slightly amused to realise now that our Literature teacher would have been in what is rather blandly referred to as the prime of one’s life. I was fascinated at the time by the expressiveness of her hands, which in body language terms both shielded us from, and betrayed to those who were watching, her endlessly unfolding appreciation of her own sexuality.

It was the title of this blog, itself a quote from an article announcing the introduction of a new grammar and spelling test into English school’s next week, which prompted the above rambling. I suspect that this new programme is designed chiefly for beleaguered teachers to get their knickers in a twist more than they already are.

I shudder and wince as easily as the next linguist when I am confronted by many instances of language use which offend my grammatical sensibilities. I am also very much aware that I had what appears to have been a privileged education. I will also concede that the world is made up of people of many different talents and varying degrees of linguistic aptitude; not everyone is destined to become a grammar buff. I am not so worried about the shortcuts one encounters in text messages. I dislike SMS intensely because it is slow and clumsy. I assume the writers of such texts do know the full version of their abbreviated messages. This may well be naïve, but at least it keeps me calm.

The problem, however, is that what is being discussed is basic grammar. The emphasis is indeed on the adjective basic. Neither the structures involved nor the concepts themselves are complex. Attitude is everything. The chief stumbling block seems to me to be that learning these fundamental elements of the way our language is structured is hard work. Yes, it does require concentration. Yes, it does mean you cannot be distracted. Yes, it does mean doing repetitive exercises. There is no fun way to learn grammar. Or, in my experience, a particularly fun way to teach it – unless you are an inventive, enthusiastic teacher who has a penchant for thinking up really great examples which are sometimes amusing.

Depending on your perspective, grammar’s saving grace is that it may just be slightly more fun than learning how to add one half and one quarter, and finding out that 75% is a cool way to say three-quarters.  And if that is the case, then three-eighths in percentage terms will be half of 75, which is 37.5%. And if you want to know what percentage five-eighths is, all you have to do is subtract 37.5 from 100. The point of this little excursion into mental arithmetic is that no one teaches you the gymnastics part of mathematics. You discover mathematical acrobatics all on you own as a natural extension of mastering the basics.

Why is grammar more fun than fractions and percentages? Because of innate human creativity.

Once you have mastered basic grammar – and even the experts agree that even a child can do it – there are endless possibilities. These possibilities present themselves every single time you say or write something. Using the simple Subject-Verb-Object sentence structure alone, for example, you can write poems. Try it! This is a liberating experience in a way that knowing five-eighths has the same value as 62.5% never can be.

Mathematics and grammar share a common attribute: Both have structure. Structure is not a scary word. It is a beautiful word which gives rise to all manner of architectural wonders from Gothic cathedrals to cantilevered bridges, to shopping malls, for Pete’s sake. When grammar – or syntax – and mathematics come together, what you get is computer programming.  I view this as a positive outcome, don’t you?

Although the neurolinguistic debate (centred on the nature/nurture argument) still rages on, one thing is clear to me, and it is this:  Like getting to grips with basic mathemathics, understanding the grammar – or structure – of any language is, barring disability, entirely possible for everyone precisely because it is based on the constructs of the human mind.

Grammar is nothing more than a set of more or less agreed conventions designed to make communication with each other easier.

This is why I am not overly fond of prescriptivists who never boldly go beyond the pale. (I thought some of you might like the mish-mash of metaphors in that last sentence.) In modern-speak, prescriptivists are the grammar police who are too busy complaining about the mistakes others make – whether in haste or for want of a decent education – to realise that it is they themselves who unwittingly give grammar a bad name. To quote from the article:

Grammar is connected to values in people’s minds. “Grammar peevers” in projects such as the Apostrophe Protection Society see “a connection between secure syntax and moral excellence”, Hitchings argues. “There’s a feeling that if we can maintain grammatical order we can maintain other kinds of order.”

These are the people who equate moral squeamishness with virtue. These are the people who never read the juiciest bits in the classics and everything else since, or indulge in the glorious poetry of it all. They are too busy finding fault. These are the people who would rather remove a misplaced apostrophe from the plural of the word apple, instead of biting into that apple and drooling over its sweetness. No reference to the Garden of Eden is intended. I just like apples. Fig leaves, not so much.

Ironically, these are the very people who might make it possible for today’s children not only to have a choice as to how they express themselves, but also to enjoy a bloody good read to boot!


There will have to be a Part II to this blog, possibly dealing with the translation aspect of this phenomenon, and other aspects which worry very few people. The few who do worry, however, worry a lot. In the meantime, perhaps you would like to ponder this: “Should grammar lessons be compulsory for our nation’s future apple sellers?”

9 thoughts on “Secure syntax and moral excellence

Add yours

  1. I see one misplaced comma, and one misplaced full stop. To extrapolate from your idea that “it is based on the constructs of the human mind”, watch the TED Talk below, to see how Chinese is based on the constructs of the human mind.

    This talk taught me 25 Chinese words which I can still remember a week later!


    1. Thank you, Shandy.
      My awful Internet connection had me correcting some errors several times. When the new equipment arrives and workload permitting, I shall make another attempt at a proper edit.
      Thank you for the link. I am glad you have found something interesting upon which to exercise your grey cells!


      1. Shandy,
        Are you sure the misplaced full stop is not a spec of dust on your screen?
        I cannot find the misplaced comma you mentioned. Perhaps someone else can!
        I do wonder how much of my reputation as an editor I am risking by being so very honest. 😉


        1. for Pete’s sake..
          I believe there should be three full stops to indicate continuation.

          To quote from the article,
          I would use a colon here.


          1. The first one was supposed to be a full stop.
            The colon in the second instance is indeed correct.
            I have an aversion to English translations from the German which incorrectly transpose colons of which the Germans are so fond; a knee-jerk reaction on my part, I suspect. 🙂


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