Tuesday, December 1, 2009

What's Ungrammatical?

Boy, do I wish there were a quick and easy answer to that question. but there isn't. How can there be when language is changing all the time, and that means grammar,too? Of course, grammar doesn't change as fast as word usage does.

That's because we depend on grammar to tell us how to take the words we're uttering or writing. For instance, love in "I love him" vs. "Love makes us crazy" vs. "He was a love child." The word love can be either a verb, a noun, or an adjective, with somewhat different sense in each guise. It is grammar that tells us which way to take it.

Another problem with deciding definitively what is ungrammatical is that any widely spoken language, like English or Spanish, has many dialects. Even if we choose the so-called standard form of those languages, we find that people in different regions or professions or just certain groups or even individuals differ in their judgment of what is grammatical. Admittedly, this isn't true of all grammar forms, but, believe me, it is of enough to give us problems.

One clear source of different judgments of grammar is how old you are. Another is where you were educated, even at the high school level. To this day, in writing, I feel a pang when I deliberately use a sentence fragment. At Classical High, one got an automatic F on any paper if you used a fragment. (Actually, everyone uses them all the time in spoken language. If they didn't, they'd sound worse than weird)

Oh, another thing is, by 'grammatical' do we mean something that no native speaker would ever say, such as "boy the hill up went." No matter how much a dialect in English is looked down upon, its speakers would never say that. In other languages, however, there could be equivalent sentences like that which are normal.

Let's say, we are talking about 'grammatical' in the sense of 'no native speaker of any dialect of the language would ever say.' That is what modern lingists do.

Using that criterion, then if there are things speakers of certain dialects do regularly say, but others don't, we say, "That is grammatical for that dialect." For instance, I would not ordinarily say:

He didn't do nothing.

However, every speaker of English understands it, and doesn't find it foreign. Therefore in certain dialects, perhaps most dialects, of English it is grammatical. Still, it is looked down upon by speakers of standard English dialects, British and American.

Yes, grammar is a social marker. It marks you out by social class. It also marks you out as coming from a particular region. In the American Midlands, which begin in southern Pennsylvania and goes all the way over to northern Oklahoma(go to http://bit.ly/LgSoci)most natives say:

The cat wants fed.
The house needs painted.

That (and a lot of other, to me, strange sentences) are grammatical there
In a 28 state swath going South to North cutting through what we think of as the Midwest, people regularly say:

Meat prices are high anymore

No that doesn't mean they aren't high or that they have always been high. It means they are high now. Again, that is grammatical for some native speakers, but not for me, a product of eastern New England. I can only use anymore after a word with a negative meaning, such as hardly, never and of course, not:

Electronics aren't expensive anymore.

However, it is perfectly grammatical to me to say, anyways as a discourse marker, as in:

Anyways, as I was saying, electronics aren't expensive anymore.

However, I recognize that people think that's wrong, people who say things like:

The house needs painted.
The cat wants fed.

One commenter on my last blog told me he grew up speaking a southern rural dialect which is laughed at by standard speakers. The example he gave me, spelling it as it would've been pronounced in his area was actually the "I didn't do nothing" variety of double negative. He thought the whole thing was ungrammatical. Actually, pronunciation is another matter entirely, but I was able to tell him the sentence was grammatical in uneducated dialect or working class dialects, however you want to put it. It is just not grammatical in educated circles.

Finally, some now nonstandard usages once were perfectly grammatical. The double negative is one. Note that Shakespeare regularly used them. Moreover, most of the European languages allow them as a matter of course. It was Bishop Lowth in the late 18th century who, as a jury of one, decided we shouldn't use them because in mathematics, 'two negatives make a positive.' Why that should obviate their use in ordinary language, I don't know, but the burgeoning merchant class of that age was desperately looking for ways to sound posh so that the nobility wouldn't look down on them. These merchants and other once rural or lower class people who were elevated to the bourgeoisie readily adopted Bishop Lowth's pronouncements, most of which are just plain silly, being transferences from Latin grammar to English.

One example of such a transference is the unusable rule not to split infinitives. In Latin, the infinitive of the verb is one word. Nobody could split it, of course. However, English had long lost the one word infinitive form and used two words to convey it: to + verb, as in 'to realize, and 'to drive. Consider the following:

He came suddenly to realize that she's a pain.
He came to realize suddenly that she's a pain
He came to suddenly realize that she's a pain.

It's possible easily to drive to Newport from Providence.
It's possible to drive easily to Newport from Providence.
It's possible to easily drive to Newport from Providence.

Not that some verbs take to infinitive splitting moer naturally than others and some, you will find as you think of them, sound more than durfy if you don't split them.

Finally, a plea for ain't. Until the purists got hold of it, ain't was the proper, and only contraction of am not. It is impossible to say "amn't", but we easily contract isn't, wasn't, aren't, weren't. What happened is that the verb to be is highly irregular, and in what came to be nonstandard dialects, the various
forms of to be got to be used quite differently, a situation that remains today.

For instance, some dialects said "I is" or "you was" or "they is." Some just used be as in "we be." African American English uses be to mean 'all the time' as in:

We be going every day.

Okay, I seem to be off the topic, but I'm not. What happened is speakers of some of those nonstandard dialects began using ain't with subjects other than I, so they said:

I ain't going
He ain't working.
They ain't there.

So, in the general proscription of ain't, middle class speakers were afraid to use it when it was correct, as in "I ain't going." Instead, they made a much worse error in contracting. They started saying aren't, especially in questions and tags, as in:

I'm going, aren't I?
Aren't I invited?

They would shudder if anyone said "I are," which, in effect they're doing when they question with "aren't I." They certainly would eschew the orginally correct:

I'm going, ain't I?
Ain't I invited?

Since nobody would say "I aren't going," standard speakers just contracted I am not toI'm not, but you can't say "Mn't I invited." Hence the clearly wrong aren't used in questions and tags.

So, what is clearly wrong can become grammatically correct if the right people say it.