Grammar, authoritarianism and me…

In my life, “Grammar” has been very much related to authoritarianism.  I’m currently enjoying Eats, Shoots and Leaves, and it has brought back memories of my  relationship to grammar.

Growing up in a relatively authoritarian society meant that we had to learn “rules of grammar”.  They were considered important enough that failing in grammar meant failing a whole year of school.  “Compulsory”.  The very word has an authoritarian ring to it.

As a young adult, if you had some strengths in the area of “correct” use of grammar, you might advance careerwise.  Unless you were a woman, in which case you might aspire to become a ‘senior’ secretary — someday maybe even secretary to a president!  Young men with grammar skills, on the other hand, could aspire to a writing career which, although not lucrative, we romanticized.

Once I’d been working for awhile with people from other parts of the world, I became aware of conflicting rules of grammar: we Canadians of British heritage spelled words like programme with a double m and e, whereas the Americans had dropped the extra m and e.  My British authority at the next desk insisted on the extra parts, while I found myself attracted to the rebellious American spelling.  Program.   It certainly uses less ink.   ‘American spelling’ began to seem more practical and sensible and of course I began to realize there was no logical reason to add the extra letters.

This may well have been a significant step in my ‘radicalization’.  I had begun to see that my hard-earned grammatical correctness was actually, after all, a relative thing – as with many of life’s values.  While I was becoming more flexible and daring in my use of grammar, schools were beginning to relax the rules – all rules in fact.   Little did we realize this was merely a small part of the flowering of the counter-culture revolution.

As I always say, perspective is everything.  And as my values and lifestyle evolved, shifted, and changed, so did my English usage.   And by the time I’d been through some traumatic life changes, I had become downright ‘impossible’ – even starting sentences with prepositions and conjunctions!

The days when I thought in terms of ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’ usage are long gone.   Now I see language usage as clusters of skills.  There’s the everyday communication cluster, which contains its own variety.  There’s the language of instruction – which also has a variety of styles.  There’s a vast array of creative language.  And more.  Some of these clusters include certain ‘skill packages’ – like when someone knows how to construct a recognizable object out of odd pieces of wood, with special tools.

Some of us have a few of these language skill sets, some of us don’t, but have other skill sets.   These differences no longer represent some vague positive or negative  aspects of people.  ‘Rules of grammar’ have faded into the background – a relative thing, as they always were really.  It’s just that my old authoritarian rigidity took awhile to crumble, like rose-coloured glasses.  Make that ‘colored’.

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10 Responses to Grammar, authoritarianism and me…

  1. Bill Dixon says:

    Your comments reminded me of another dimension of grammar that I found useful. Grammar classes made me aware of the logical structure of a communication. While struggling to find that grammatical structure as a student, I began to see which approaches made the message clearer, and which made it difficult to follow. The grammar of other languages became easier once I had some idea of grammar of my mother tongue. That’s why I wish that non-authoritarian grammar was back in the school curriculum; not “controversial”. Please accept my apologies for any grammatical and punctuation errors. 🙂

  2. john zande says:

    Nah, i’m a stickler for good English English. I find American use of the language terribly shoddy and lazy.

  3. Interesting take on grammar. I, too, grew up with the strict rules and do have an eye for correct usage! I suppose as a teacher of English that would be expected! 🙂

  4. I do value the skill of being able to apply grammar rules — by choice. This perspective seems to have eliminated my critical-judgmental reaction to “poor” grammar skills. The value of the skill in my mind is aimed at (hopefully) enabling the reader to receive the message I’m sending, the way I intend it to be received. Believe me, I had my time of anger at a system that considered the teaching of grammar “controversial”! (my children’s era) But I have been somewhat won over by the argument that even those without strong grammar skills should be able to participate confidently in democratic processes. There are many ways to express a passion, and they needn’t feel they should hide their light under a bushel…. I guess that may be my philosophy in the proverbial nut shell! 🙂

  5. Correct usage matters sometimes in my opinion but what always matters far more to me is the innate gift of story… anyone can write well enough to pass grammar tests… not just anyone can take me somewhere I’ve never been before as have some native peoples with their magnificent weavings of words in languages formed more for function than perfection. Basics are good but staying true to your own unique voice and that/those of characters is more important to me overall. There’s my unsolicited three thousand pennies worth, lol Happy writing all. 🙂

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