Grammar For Grownups
This is the introduction of the book Grammar For Grownups
By Val Dumond
Published by HarperCollins
Copyright ©1993 Reprinted with permission from the author.
Wouldn’t our communication lives be simplified if only there were a single authority, a Chief of Grammar, a National Grammar Archive, a single set of rules to dictate how our language is spoken and written? If there were such a ruling body, we surely would have unearthed it by now.
There are no 21 Rules of Grammar as there are the Ten Commandments, the Bill of Rights, the Magna Carta, the Constitution.
Do you want to know why? Because nobody knows all the rules. Yes! It’s true. Nowhere is there a set of grammar rules that everyone can turn to because everyone cannot agree on what the rules are.
Yes, experts and specialists abound. Many have tried to put down all the rules in one place, end to end, but managed only to dredge up controversy among the other experts. Difficult as it may be to believe, grammar specialists differ – a lot! (They differ on whether or not a lot is a usable phrase.)
The reason for this discord in the ranks of grammarians is that the American English language comes to us through evolution (God, yes!), not creation.
The language has evolved from the generation before us, and the generation before them, and for generations back to the roots of civilization and the first spoken word (which must have been don’t). It is still evolving.
The American language comes to us from every other language in the world and is inserted, squeezed, pushed, dropped, finagled or pounded into common usage. Common usage means the way people use it every day. Unlike Latin or Greek, our language comes to us a la carte, not as a structured, organized convention.
Therefore, how could there possibly be one set of rules?
There can’t. Of course, some basics are generally recognized. These help make the language inter-usable as a means of communication. However, there are many gray areas.
…few specialists agree among themselves
…language constantly changes
…different groups use their own adaptations of the language
…communication needs (goals, objectives, srategies) vary accordingly
- Mark Twain’s language was that of a story teller, using dialects and regional words, syntax and pronunciation. The great writers – Shakespeare, the Brontes, Hemingway, Faulkner, Austin, Steinbeck, Uris, Mailer, Oates tell their stories using their own words, punctuation, beliefs about grammar.
- Advertising agencies and PR representatives have their own sets of techniques to persuade and sell ideas to motivate others.
- Computer people have developed their own language to transmit a new technology in a new environment.
- Sports writers use a slang terminology indecipherable to the uninitiated. A sports bar during Monday night football sounds as alien to the non-sport as the world of academia does to the non-tutored.
- Military jargon, clipped, direct, symbolizing instant recognition and response, has its own language rules.
- The poet’s language is full of metaphoric music with meanings unique to the poet and the philosopher, a language where the meaning of life supersedes the meaning of living.
- An attorney’s language is aimed at dotting i’s and crossing t’s to degrees that take it beyond common comprehension. Medical language likewise is incomprehensible to the lay person. Attorneys take seven years to disguise their communication; doctors take ten or more to obscure theirs.
- Workers in their own areas of operation—auto assembly lines, design drawing boards, bars, antique shops, mines, fishing craft, grain fields, stables, artist garrets, symphony halls, churches, insurance offices, stock markets, meat markets, schools—all speak their own language and follow their own rules of grammar.
Who can say what is right or wrong, what is correct or incorrect?
The language of the professional grammarian – found in departments of English and language at universities and colleges – offers all kinds of answers about what is right and wrong. And it is as difficult to find agreement among them as it is to find agreement among sports fans as to the most valuable player, the leading team, the best game.
Students sometimes accuse me of reacting to a heated grammar debate like the character Diane on the TV show Cheers, because I get as excited about grammar as she does about English Lit. Grammar is not a dead set of rules to be endured. Grammar is alive, changing, controversial. Grammar requires attention and energy to catch hold of it. In return for using it well, writers find they are better understood in less time with less need for clarification.
In preparing this book, my sources have been the communicators I find around me – on television and radio, in newspapers, speakers, debators, friends, colleagues, strangers, grammar experts – all of whom provided the examples of grownup language used here. Most of them were overheard speaking for themselves. They are not identified, as much for our protection as for theirs.
In my first class of college freshman English (re-named Communications), a tuned-in professor assigned us to listen to the ways people talk informally – at home, in stores, in restaurants, over meals or coffee, at rest, at play, in class, sitting on the lawn – wherever people used words to communicate. We were to bring examples of speech back to class.
I’ve been carrying out that assignment ever since. This book gives you a fairly accurate recap of what I learned.
The first thing I learned is that people don’t talk grammar. They don’t talk language. They don’t even talk words. They talk ideas.
Another thing I learned is that what was taught back in grade school had little to do with the way our language is used, although it was a good start for a complex subject.
Many years later while teaching basic grammar to GED students, I learned the most important lesson. In reviewing all those grade school rules, I found I had been using most of that stuff for years without knowing why. By refreshing the basics in preparation for teaching that class, I refreshed my own sense of language, with the results that my command of words has improved. Now, when I hesitate – Do I use a comma here? Do I use a plural or singular? Which verb tense is appropriate? How is this word spelled? – now I have the guidelines I need.
I also have the freedom to improvise, create, add my own relaxed style to the way I use language. This book offers a combination of guidelines and creative language use for you to start building your own style of speaking and writing.