Living with Grammar Nazis

Our attitudes toward language determine where language goes. It is a fact of life that as time goes on, language grows, develops and changes. We only need to look as far back as Shakespeare to see that this is the case. So where will the language go next?

There are two types of people when it comes to the English language: Those who look at it with a prescriptive approach, and those who take a descriptive approach. Those that view the language from a descriptive point of view tend to value the different varieties of English, paying attention to what people do say rather than what they should say. This is where I tend to fall – as a general rule, my grammar is correct (or almost correct), but this is because that’s how my parents spoke to me as a child. I never go around correcting other people’s grammar because it is none of my business how they express themselves. The prescriptive approach, on the other hand, is based on notions of “correctness” in language. It decides what people should say, and distinguishes “good” language from “bad” language. This is where you’ll find your common-or-garden Grammar Nazis. 

The thing is, there are some fairly common ways of phrasing a sentence that are ungrammatical but essential. If I were to ask you if James was about and you responded with “James doesn’t be here”, I would know what you mean even though this isn’t a phrase I would use. There are more grammatically correct ways of responding, yes, but these don’t mean quite the same thing. “James isn’t here” would imply that James simply isn’t here at the moment, which is not what “James doesn’t be here” means. “James doesn’t be here” means that James may have been here in the past, but in recent times he hasn’t been here. It’s an ongoing absence which “James isn’t here” simply doesn’t cover. Perhaps the most accurate way of translating the sentence to “correct” English would be “James doesn’t tend to be here”, but this is overly formal and would sound odd in casual, spoken English.

Even more common is the use of the word “youse” to represent the second-person-plural. “Youse” is a word which I never really encountered until I moved to Northern Ireland, but it is one of which I have grown quite fond. If there was a group of us sitting in the kitchen and someone walked in saying “Do you want to go into town?”, we would look at each other for a while to try and decide who was being addressed. On the other hand, if they were to walk in saying “Do youse want to go into town?”, we would all jump up and we’d have a lovely day out together in the city centre. 

I think that it is important for us to see little bits of language like this not as disgusting abominations, but as interesting and rather useful ways of playing with the language.

But I guess that’s just my opinion.

Note: According to my little green book which tells me what I’m supposed to be writing about, today I should be writing about my friend Alex’s birthday, which was on Tuesday. However, I can tell you now that other than a panic attack in the bathroom of our local pub and a taxi ride home alone, the party was not all that eventful from my perspective. Instead of writing about it, here are two photos to sum up the event so I can get on with writing about other stuff.

Image

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Onward and upward.

Tx

 

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