Listening to Mr Gwynne The Grammarian on Saturday Live a few weeks ago (BBC Radio 4 20 April 2013), I was struck by his absolute insistence on the importance of correct grammar. He puts forward an interesting if not entirely logical argument along the following lines: "we think with words .. and grammar is how we use words. If you use words in the wrong way, that means you are going to think in the wrong way, if you think in the wrong way, you are going to make wrong decisions - the results of which are going to vary between being a nuisance and a catastrophe ... happiness depends in part on one's mastery of grammar.". How simple the world would be if happiness could be reduced to a perfectly structured clause. And simpler still if that alone guaranteed clear communication.
A student of mine studying English, when asked what she had done at the weekend, announced that she had "burst [her] hot pants climbing over a fence". Her grammar was perfect, of course, and it certainly made me so happy that I laughed out loud (one point to Mr Gwynne). We eventually worked out that she had merely ripped her trendy new trousers, rather than suffered some catastrophic event of spontaneous combustion. She had processed her idea using accurate grammar and had clearly put some thought into it, having taken the trouble to look up the verb in a dictionary, but her selection meant that meaning was lost. The triumph of form over meaning - which would rather turn Mr Gwynne's argument on its head (one point to me).
Form Versus Creativity
Of course there is hot debate in the language training world about the best way to teach a language - and rarely these days would you hear anyone expressing the idea that structure (or "form" as it is described above) comes before creativity or fluency. The emphasis is on equipping learners with the capacity and confidence to communicate clearly from day one and that is often achieved by practising short phrases in a realistic conversation before worrying about unpicking the grammar that stitches it all together.
Mr Gwynne feels creativity is secondary to grammatical accuracy and understanding; you cannot build a sentence until you have the tools to do it. He uses Jane Austen as a model grammarian but I wonder whether she thought first about her use of the dummy subject in the opening line of Pride and Prejudice or, more engagingly, whether Mr Darcy would eventually win the hand of Elizabeth Bennett?
The Importance Of Grammar At Work
No-one would deny that grammatical accuracy is important - particularly in the business world. It defines the level at which you work and is probably one of the most important skills in your written and oral communication. Nor is there much dispute about the usefulness of having a certain lexicon to hand that defines words by their grammatical function (verb, adverb, pronoun, preposition and so on), which makes it easier to pinpoint errors, but I remain unconvinced that complex grammatical explanations are the right way to help solve the problem for everyone. I have seen people glaze over when I wax lyrical about the joys of object relative pronouns and instantly revive when I say "this is what "whom" means and this is how you use it ..." - because, of course, they have always secretly wondered but been too afraid to ask.
Perfectly structured sentences from the mouths of beginners in a language are rare, but in truth, perfectly structured sentences from the mouths of expert native speakers are rare; we all make tiny errors all the time without interfering significantly with our precise meaning. Surely it is better to communicate fluently than be rendered inarticulate for fear of making some terrible grammatical faux pas?
Perhaps then Mr Gwynne might be persuaded that perfect grammar in no way guarantees clear communication. Indeed, communication is not about getting it right all the time - especially when you are learning a foreign language - it is about having a go at expressing an idea and sharing understanding with someone. Perfect grammar and an impressive range of vocabulary are highly unlikely to improve your level of communication if your interlocutor simply doesn't pick up your meaning.
That doesn't let you off the hook with grammar, of course - it is about finding that happy balance between creativity and structure - meaning and form. Try Mr Gwynne's grammar quiz to see if you know your prepositions from your qualifying adjectives. It certainly made me smile - if somewhat ruefully.
About the writer
Kathy Girling is Head of Product Development at Communicaid, a culture and business communication skills consultancy based in the UK. They offer courses in business english amongst their products and services.