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’.