Perspective on Grammar

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I came across an article the other day titled “Science Says You Can Split Infinitives and use the Passive Voice.” According to the article’s author, Chris Mooney, a new book written by Steven Pinker, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, explains why you no longer have to follow certain grammar rules. These rules are referred to as “bogus” in the article.

First of all, I have never thought of grammar as a scientific subject. Linguistics, sure. It’s a soft science of sorts. But not grammar rules. Perhaps that was my first mistake. Secondly, I do not consider grammar rules to be bogus. Due to my background in writing and literary studies, I cannot accept the idea that grammar is insignificant. Are some of the rules wonky? Absolutely. Does that mean that we shouldn’t follow them in formal writing settings? Absolutely not.

The purpose behind standardizing language is easy to see, particularly if you take into consideration the status of the English language before standardization took place. Written communication was, at the very least, difficult because not everyone used the same spellings of words or even the same words. The language was full of dialects. Dialects are certainly not a bad thing–and they still exist. But living in a world without some sort of standardization or rule to follow makes it next to impossible to communicate with people easily.

If you aren’t familiar with the story why English grammar rules state that you should not (not that you cannot) split an infinitive, then let me pause for a moment and share it with you. I actually have a small affection for this story, likely because I studied Latin throughout college. So, back in the day, Latin was considered the standard and was the language to be emulated. All the rich people made their kids learn it and those who didn’t know it were at the mercy of the church to explain to them what the Bible said (Ok I’m glossing a lot there, but I’m not going to give you a lengthy explanation).

In Latin, it is impossible to split an infinitive because the infinitive form a word is simply a single word. For example, take the Latin verb for the infinitive “to love.” Amare is the Latin infinitive. Clearly it is a single word and impossible to split. Because Latin was the ideal, the people in charge of standardizing communication and the English language chose to emulate it even though it is possible to split infinitives in English. Thus, you have the grammar rule: Do not split an infinitive.

In my personal opinion, it is important to adhere to rules, but there are situations where the rules can be broken, particularly for stylistic purposes as long as it does not break down comprehension. In more formal writing or communication, such as a dissertation or a business letter, it is important to adhere to such standards. If you’re writing a novel, there are situations where it is okay to split an infinitive (or break certain grammar rules). My reasoning behind this has nothing to do with science. It has more to do with the situation and the appropriate voice to adopt for various writing scenarios. I don’t need science to tell me what is or is not appropriate or acceptable.

Ok, moving on to the passive voice issue. First of all, let’s be clear on what passive voice is. Passive voice occurs when the subject of the sentence has an action done to it instead of actively performing the action. There are scenarios where passive voice is acceptable or even makes sense. No one says you CAN’T use passive voice. It’s just not considered to be very good writing.

If you want to use science to validate your use of the passive voice, then, by all means, do so. But I doubt the end result will be very interesting. Think of the use of passive voice in the same way that you think of showing versus telling. What’s more interesting? A story that SHOWS you what’s going on? Or a story that TELLS you what’s going on? I guarantee that you’ll pick showing versus telling every single time. If you need further evidence, would you be more inclined to accept an argument written in the passive voice or the more assertive active voice? I believe the active voice will make the argument much more convincing if not for the simple reason that it will suggest subliminally that the writer is confident in his or her argument.

Some people may consider grammar rules to be nonsensical due to the fluidity of language. Language is always changing. I absolutely agree with that sentiment. Language changes for a multitude of reasons: technology, an isolated or segmented population creates a creole or uses words in a different way, new discoveries and new situations that need words to describe them. Because language is always changing, it is difficult to determine where the rules apply and where there may be room for a bit more leniency.

There are many people out there who believe that texting will ruin the English language because of the abundance of invented words that people use to communicate in today’s world. And yes, some of those terms, such as OMG, have made it into the speaking vernacular. Others have, unfortunately, been added to the dictionary.

You may wonder why I believe that it is unfortunate that those words have been added to the dictionary. I think a lot of those terms will not be a permanent part of our collective communication. There are many things in our collective language past that are considered a fad. How many people do you hear saying things like “That is so BOSS.” I can’t say I have heard anyone use that phrase or anything similar in recent memory. If you look up the word boss in the dictionary, you can actually find the slang definition. labels it as slang. Perhaps I’d be happier if the dictionary gods listed all those new terms as slang terms. Somehow, in my mind at least, this differentiates the type of communication for which those terms would be appropriate.

Regardless, language is a big, messy, ever-changing entity. Because of this, communication requires some standardization or we would never be able to understand each other despite essentially speak the same language. And, although I disagree with some of the sentiments that Pinker’s book seems to profess (see? I broke a grammar rule there. You aren’t supposed to begin sentences with conjunctions. But since a blog is a less formal mode of communication, I did it.), I would still be interested in reading it to see what he has to say.

What grammar rules seem senseless to you? What is your opinion on language standardization and grammar in general? I’m interested in your perspective!