Review of Grammar Matters
|AUTHOR: Jila Ghomeshi
TITLE: Grammar Matters
SUBTITLE: The Social Significance of How We Use Language
SERIES TITLE: Semaphore Series
PUBLISHER: Arbeiter Ring Publishing (ARP)
Mae Hurley, unaffiliated scholar
Grammar matters, but to who? Or should that be whom? If you care about which
form is 'better', Jila Ghomeshi's short and sharp book on language is targeted
squarely at you.
'Grammar matters' is a book that asks its audience to review their 'pet peeves'
about the English language and reject the prescriptivist perspective that
commonly informs it in wider society. The book outlines how different forms of
language are associated with social judgements like 'good' and 'bad', and warns
us not to take the moral high ground in our attitudes towards others because
they are not formed on reason but prejudice.
Grammar is the 'operating system' by which we put together sounds, words and
sentences and a written grammar is something we can consult to explain the
workings of a language. The issue arises, the author declares, between a grammar
based on how language is used ('descriptivism'), and one that is based on how
language ought to be used ('prescriptivism'). The latter kind, prescriptive
grammars, give license to value judgements and lead to negative social
consequences, such as outright snobbery from those dishing it out to insecurity
about language use for those on the receiving end.
The popular attitudes that some members of the public hold about language (''poor
grammar is attributable to ignorance, laziness, or lack of education and is
therefore justifiably the object of public scorn'', p.9) are preferences and
biases, Ghomeshi says, and should only be recognised as such.
The main sections of the book are devoted to outlining the specific units of
language that are associated with value judgements, and then presenting three
fallacies that lie at the core of language prescriptivism - the fallacies of
logic, precision and authority.
Ghomeshi begins with the smallest unit, sounds, to review why pronunciation and
accents matter and goes on to cover spelling, punctuation, parts of speech,
dialects and languages. For each unit, she discusses the variations we hear and
use (for example, different pronunciations of 'dew', spelling 'colour' or
'color', choosing to use 'firefighter' instead of 'fireman') and questions why
certain forms are marked as prestigious, some forms stigmatised, and other forms
neither prestigious nor stigmatised. There's a section on 'politically correct
language' for word choices and why these changes matter to particular kinds of
people. Why has there been a shift to gender-neutral language? Do minorities
have a right to 'reclaim' names and labels applied to their groups? The true
answers lie in ''the degree to which a change of name makes us uncomfortable'' and
''reflects our attitudes and feelings towards the group it names'' (p.42). Often,
it is more about who is proposing the changes, and which social groups are
associated with standard and non-standard forms of language, than the actual
Each of the prescriptivist fallacies of logic, precision and authority are
addressed in turn. Ghomeshi points out that a popular conception about language
is that it's logical by nature. Logic is linked to systematic regularities in
language (because how can a language be logical but irregular?) and English
fails dismally with many kinds of irregular verbs, reflexive pronouns that build
on both accusative and genitive forms, and mismatch between spelling and
pronunciation, among other examples. English is also imprecise, because of
polysemy, metonymy and metaphors. There's ambiguity among closely related
meanings and substituting one term to stand for another is not what one would
call a precise use of language. Politeness, Ghomeshi shows, calls for all sorts
of imprecise uses (for example, using third-person forms to address someone of
high social status, preferring indirectness over being too direct) and this is
where language becomes bound to social conventions. The fallacy of authority
simply rests on most people being ''unable to identify where the rules of grammar
come from'' (p.71). Ghomeshi traces the first prescriptive grammars to the 18th
century and argues that prescriptivism's rise in popularity over the next few
hundred years is due to the socially aspiring middle classes seeking out the
'marketable assets' of good pronunciation and grammar. In modern society we have
certain professions who oversee and enforce the standard variety of English
(such as teachers, copy editors and those in media), but rather than being
'experts' on language, they mediate norms of use. New and creative uses are
'incorporated into the canon' of language acceptability, and this is always
The final sections of the book emphasise what language means on social terms.
Why does non-standard grammar persist then, despite the standard being taught in
schools? People choose the way they speak, Ghomeshi says, because it marks who
they are and who they want to belong to. There's solidarity in non-conformity
and anti-authority. Taking a descriptive view on language is not about 'anything
goes', but acknowledging and appreciating language variation at its fullest.
While not a supporter of prescriptivism, Ghomeshi believes in the usefulness of
a standard for communication in society, as long as it's seen amongst the wider
backdrop of variation.
She concludes by providing the social and political reality to the question 'Why
does grammar matter?' It matters because tradition matters. History matters.
Distinguishing ourselves socially matters. We fear change and change that leads
to loss. The author shows that everyone clearly has an interest and investment
in their own language use.
At just over 100 pages, this short book has much to recommend itself to its
target audience of 'grammar fans'. Ghomeshi addresses many popular complaints
and sentiments found in newspapers and talkback radio in a succinct and
informative manner. Her arguments are sound, backed up by multiple examples, and
few readers with prescriptivist tendencies should finish the book feeling the
same way they began.
The strength of the book lies in consistently placing the English language in
its social and historical context, and also comparing it with other languages.
The discussion on the origins of the English writing system (pp.54-57) and the
rise of prescriptive grammars (pp.71-73) are well-explained; in fact, the lines
comparing how long we've had language, writing systems and prescriptive grammars
respectively (p.72) places the current status quo into perspective and shows
that prescriptivism isn't inherent nor preordained.
I like the structure of the book and how it starts with the smallest units of
language and works its way up to languages as a whole and the issues of
multilingualism and language rights. Using contemporary examples by referring to
2008 presidential candidate Sarah Palin, music artists Rihanna and Timbaland,
and recent debates about language policy in the US, to name a few, Ghomeshi
shows how relevant, modern and consistently evolving language can be. I
particularly enjoyed her discussion on the increasing use of 'you' to stand for
'I' in 'celebrity-speak', where people appear to be speaking generically but
actually are describing situations unique to themselves as celebrities or
distinguished achievers of some kind (pp.67-69). Examples and tables in the book
are set out clearly, with arrows to show correspondence between forms, and this
makes it easy for any reader new to linguistics to follow her arguments. Many of
the arguments presented in the book would likely appear in a first-year
linguistics class, but part of the author's aim was that these discussions move
from university into the wider public sphere.
One of Ghomeshi's key tenets in this book is that we're happy to make judgements
about people based on the kind of language they use, and even ''feel smug while
doing so'' (p.10). Not all of us do, but the book is a helpful reminder that we
cannot, and we should not, automatically link intelligence to language use and
even political positions. One interesting discussion deals specifically with
politics (pp.82-83). I was relieved to read that it was ridiculous to link
language dialects with political positions after the author posited the idea of
prescriptivists as 'language conservatives' who support upholding traditional
values, while descriptivists were more inclined to be progressive and 'language
liberals' (the publisher of this book, incidentally, 'leans left').
The book is clearly intended for a Canadian audience, so international readers
may find some of the examples more specific to North America (for example,
discussions about pronunciations, student categories of 'jocks' and 'jells' at
high school). A reference or more discussion would have been helpful to the
claim that pronouncing 'Iran' and 'Iraq', with the first syllable as 'eye',
could signal ''greater distance from the country and its people'', as ''US
presidents willing to wage war in the Middle East have tended to use the 'eye'
pronunciation'' (p.26). A recent study (Hall-Lew et al. 2010) connected political
affiliation with pronunciation of the second vowel of 'Iraq', but findings on
the first vowel were not as clearcut. There's also an unfortunate typo for 'part
participle' instead of 'past participle' in the discussion on irregular verbs
(p. 51). But these are minor issues in such a concise and well-written book.
A consistent anti-prescriptivist stance lies throughout the book, a position
that most linguists will tend to agree with. But I suspect the wider community
(and in particular the target audience of this book) likes and prefers
definitive answers for the right context. Ghomeshi argues the case very well
against making judgemental calls, those based on little else but prejudice, but
can linguists offer sound judgement calls about language to the public? Ghomeshi
says ''the relationship between a prescriptive grammarian and a linguist is like
the relationship between an etiquette expert and an anthropologist'' (p.72).
While linguistics (and anthropology) can provide insight into the nature of
being human, people still want advice on what's most appropriate for a
particular context. The prescriptive grammarian sells and the sustained
popularity of a book like 'The elements of style' (Strunk & White 2000) fulfils
this need for guidance, whether or not linguists agree with its recommendations.
There's demand for clarity in language, particularly in public discourse, and
there's also room for linguists to speak louder to shape public perception
towards a more informed view of language.
Overall, 'Grammar matters' packs a lot of punch into its pocketbook size. For
linguists, this book is a perfect response for every time you tell someone
you're a linguist and they start revealing their pet hates about English. It's a
book that promotes linguistics, explains the social significance of language and
encourages reflection on our own prejudices. It should certainly be handed out
to those who relished 'Eats, shoots and leaves' (Truss 2003). Keen readers who
enjoy 'Grammar matters' can move onto heftier popular linguistics books, like
'How language works' (Crystal 2006), 'The power of Babel' (McWhorter 2001) and
'Metaphors we live by' (Lakoff & Johnson 2003). Better still, they may consider
degrees in linguistics.
Crystal, David. 2006. How language works: how babies babble, words change
meaning and languages live or die. London: Penguin.
Hall-Lew, Lauren, Coppock, Elizabeth and Rebecca L. Starr. 2010. Indexing
political persuasion: variation in the 'Iraq' vowels. American Speech 85(1):
Lakoff, George & Mark Johnson. 2003. Metaphors we live by, 2nd edition. Chicago:
University of Chicago Press.
McWhorter, John. 2001. The power of Babel: a natural history of language. New
York: Times Books, Henry Holt and Company.
Strunk, William & E.B White. 2000. The elements of style, 4th edition. New York:
Truss, Lynn. 2003. Eats, shoots and leaves: the zero tolerance approach to
punctuation. London: Profile Books.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
| ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Mae Hurley is an editor in health communications with an honours degree in
linguistics from the University of Sydney. She's taught English as a
Second/Foreign Language, tutored Cross-cultural Communication and consulted
to business and government on plain language. Her research interests
include discourse analysis, health literacy, systemic functional
linguistics and multiculturalism. She writes about language issues on her