Basics of writing

What is “grammar” and why bother? (plus the use of “who, whom, that”)

From Rick:

As writers, we should be more conscious of the grammar of the language than the average speaker might be. Notice that I said “grammar” not “grammar rules.” I’ll explain the difference in a minute.

Throughout our education, we are taught the rules of grammar as they apply to proper speech and writing. But where do these all rules come from in the first place? And why is it often considered a sin to violate them?

The purpose of language is to communicate among ourselves, be it in spoken or written form. This requires of a set of conventions so that every speaker has the same understanding, and we must therefore agree on a consistent set of symbols used to represent the ideas in the written language, consistent pronunciation of words in the spoken language, and agreed upon meanings for those words.

But that’s still not enough to establish the language. We also require a common structure for putting those words together into sentences. For our purposes, the grammar of a language is basically the description of that common structure. More broadly, grammar is the whole system and structure of the language.

While we often see the “rules of grammar” taught as absolutes, as if they were unbreakable laws like those in our system of justice, grammar is nothing more than a description of the established conventions of the language. And as such, they are subject to change as the language changes over time.

Let’s consider the three following sentences.

You are married.
Are you married?
You are married?

In written form, the meaning of these are clear, although the third one is a less common way of asking a question and might be more likely used to express surprise than an actual question.

However, when these three are spoken, the punctuation is not rendered directly in speech and must come from the voice inflection, particularly necessary to distinguish sentences one and three. Two conventions (“rules of grammar”) are seen here.

Current practice inverts the subject-verb word order to form a question, which makes it clear in either spoken or written form, but we also add the question mark as a punctuation convention. It’s interesting that we can also speak the sentence “Are you married?” in one of two ways. One way is to raise your voice at the end, making it a clear question. But we could also say it without any inflection, as if we were simply reciting a list of questions:

Are you married
Do you have any children
Where do you work
Where do you live

Now, let’s go back to those three previous sentences, in particular one and three. In the spoken language, the speaker would distinguish “You are married” from “You are married?” by voice inflection. In our current written language, the question mark represents that voice inflection. Prior to the establishment of written punctuation in our language, only by inverting the word order could we turn sentence one into a question.

Because we have established and agreed on certain language conventions, anyone who has learned those conventions (grammar) will be able to understand the proper meaning of each of these sentences. Further, this example illustrates one way in which a language’s grammar can change, in this case by the addition of certain punctuation.

To claim that a particular usage is “grammatically incorrect” only means it is something that is not considered as being established usage by most speakers of the language on a day-to-day basis. This of course ignores local variations as well as slang and nonstandard usage, which may border on “grammatically incorrect.”

Put another way, grammar is not a set of rules of how the language must be used, but rather a description of how the language currently is used.

Let’s take the example of double negatives. We learned in school that it’s poor grammar to say “I don’t have nothing.” Why? Because that’s not the normal way most English speakers talk. It’s not the “established” convention.

However, that same sentence in Spanish becomes No tengo nada (literally “I have not nothing”,) and that is correct grammar in Spanish. In a humorous English context, we wouldn’t consider “I don’t have nothing” as poor grammar but instead might simply call it nonstandard usage in such a context because it’s deliberate.

I’m sure we’ve all heard educated people say “I should have went” instead of “I should have gone.” In fact, I’m hearing it that way more and more. We also hear “I must have drank too much last night” (where “drunk” used to be considered the correct form of the verb). Many dictionaries now list “drank” as the acceptable past participle of “drink” and the reason I’ve heard given is that “drunk” has acquired a more negative connotation, so people avoid it unless referring to someone being “drunk.”

Grammar is rarely static in any living language (meaning a language still in use and therefore subject to modification as the need arises). We see this today more than ever as our own language adds new words and modifies how existing ones are used. This brings me to the second part of the title of this post: who/whom/that.

Many of us had the usage rules of “who” and “whom” drilled into us in our English classes, and we still got them wrong:

John Smith is the delegate (who/whom) is arriving tomorrow.

He’s the person (who/whom) I’m pretty sure will take over my job.

(Who/whom) is the award being given to?

(Who/whom) is going to receive the award?

(Whoever/whomever) you choose to trust on that is up to you.

No matter how I present it, there is always someone (who/whom) will oppose the new way of doing things.

I suspect that sentences like these are the reason I see more people using “that” where appropriate instead of “who/whom.” (And I am not going to give you the correct answers because I’m considering these sentences to be spoken in dialog in a novel, so “who” or “whoever” are considered acceptable in all cases.)

While in general we use “who” when referring to people and “that” for everything else, there is sufficient historical justification for using “that” to refer to people to make it a less rigid rule.

He’s the person THAT I’m pretty sure will take over my job.

No matter how I present it, there is always someone THAT will oppose the new way of doing things.

I often see “that” used in the UK to refer to people, and I would not complain if someone referred to a pet as “who,” and certainly “who” is justified in fantasies where the animals are characters as much as the humans are. But it’s also true that some people who use “that” to refer to people likely don’t know the difference.

Fortunately for us, “whom” is being eased out of the language except in the most formal writing, and even there it’s slowly going away. I’m guessing it’s because so many people have had so much trouble with using “who” and “whom” that “who” has become acceptable as both a subject and object. There is also preceence for this type of grammatical change.

While most of the personal pronouns (I/me, he/him, she/her, we/us, they/them) still retain different subject or object forms, “you” has only one form now where it once had two forms. Do you know what the other was?

It’s interesting that “you” was the object form of the pronoun (comparable to “me, him, us,” etc.). The subject form was “ye,” which we now see only in older writings. Here’s how the usage used to be:

“Do ye want to come with me?”
“I will gladly accompany you.” (not “I will gladly accompany ye”)

Another interesting fact is that there used to be two other forms of the second person pronoun: “thou” (subject) and “thee” (object). Some people may think that these were formal pronouns of address when in fact they were the familiar forms. Friends spoke to one another as “thou” and “thee,” while “ye” and “you” were used among strangers or in more formal situations.

Some languages (Spanish, for example) still make the distinction between “you” in formal and familiar forms (formal usted and familiar ). There used to be a familiar plural vosotros, but that’s now used primarily only in Spain, while the rest of the Spanish-speaking world uses ustedes as the “you” plural. French, however, went a different way with the “you” plural form. French retains the tu form for the familiar singular, but the vous form (analogous to the plural familiar vosotros in Spanish) has become the formal “you” in both singular and plural usage (as in Parlez-vous Francais?—Do you speak French?.) This demonstrates how languages change and that “rules” are not absolute over time. Both Spanish and French came from the same Latin grammar roots, yet their grammars have evolved differently.

Let’s get back to grammar rules as they apply to English writing. A somewhat different expectation exists here. For the most part, readers expect to see current conventions of the language being used. (And you thought I was done with “Reader Expectations,” didn’t you?)

Let’s consider the language of Shakespeare’s time to demonstrate linguistic changes. Not only have the language conventions changed since that time, but some of the words have become obsolete, and others have changed meaning. Take this example from Hamlet’s famous “to be or not to be” soliloquy:

When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,…

Um… what the heck does that mean?

A quietus can refer to a retirement or period of inactivity, a finishing stroke or something the ends or settles something (such as having the last word in an argument), or it can mean a release from life (as in death). A fardel is a bundle or burden. A bodkin is pointed instrument for making holes in cloth or leather or something used to pin up a woman’s hair, but it is also an obsolete term for a dagger or knife. Knowing these definitions, one can now figure out the meaning of the lines, which we must assume the people of Shakespeare’s time did with considerably less difficulty.

As we’ve seen, not only can the words and word meanings of a language change over time, but so can the grammar. This is why we should hesitate to refer to the “rules” of grammar and writing. As writers, we must be aware of what’s considered acceptable and when we can stretch the conventions. If you want readers to respect you as a writer, make sure they know that you know what you’re doing and that any breaking of the rules is intentional and for a good reason.

The bending or breaking of conventions has been done repeatedly in the arts, writing being no exception. Artists of all types—painters, musicians, and composers—have done it. Whenever we break with convention, we risk not gaining acceptance of our work. Picasso began as a traditional painter. In music, the saying goes that “Bach made the rules and Beethoven broke them.” In the past few decades, music has seen the introduction of many new styles.

Unfortunately, none of this excuses you from knowing the grammar of the language in the first place. If you’re a grammatically illiterate writer and don’t want to learn the grammar, then find yourself a good editor who can make you sound like you know what you’re doing.

Never forget this wisdom: You have to know the rules before you can break them.