Opinion writing about grammar (TU19)


Among grammatical mistakes, I may mention the use of one little word, which occurs so often, that if it be improperly introduced, is a certain mark of vulgarity, I mean the word “them,” when it is used instead of “these,” or “those;” as when you say, “I have done them things now,” instead of “those [t]hings;”

(The Vulgarities of Speech Corrected, 1829, p. 210)

Accomplished use of the gerund suggests sophistication because it also suggests a grasp of grammar usually associated with those who have been taught English grammar, or (sometimes and) the grammar of foreign languages. It is not a usage that comes easily to the uneducated.

(Heffer 2010, p. 98)

More than 180 years lie between the two quotations cited above. The value judgements expressed by the two authors are, however, very similar. Both proscribe against specific usages and attach labels to speakers who use non-standard feature. While the anonymous author in the first quotation considers the use of them as a demonstrative pronoun as vulgar, Simon Heffer, journalist-cum-usage guide author, attributes the incorrect use of gerunds to uneducated speakers who did not receive an education in grammar, be it English grammar or the grammar of a foreign language. The two quotations reflect prescriptive attitudes towards language use according to which some linguistic features are considered improper, vulgar, incorrect, sloppy or illiterate, and as a consequence should be avoided. While this prescriptive approach has persisted over the last three hundred years, the subject of controversy has somewhat changed. Some linguistic features have become acceptable, while others have remained disputed. New features have also been added to the group of so-called usage problems. In this teaching unit, we will focus on opinions on grammar and how they may have changed over the course of time. First, a brief description of the usage problems included in this teaching unit is presented. Changing attitudes towards these usages are presented in Table 1 below. Last, we will present some qualitative data in the form of meta-commentary on language change in British English.

Discussion points

Linguistics Research Digest links
OMG! Is texting wrecking our language?
The truth about grammar books: do they actually influence language use?

Additional link
Grammar lovers split over infinitives