English For The Natives

English

Author: Harry Ritchie

Finished on: 27 February 2016

Where did I get this books: The Forum Bookshop, Corbridge

This book is delicious. If you are a complete geek.

If you salivate at discussion of why there is a lot of non-standard use of the present perfect tense by football pundits, or what the last remaining few examples of the subjunctive are in English, then this is the book for you.

Ritchie’s premise is a good one. That English spoken by native English speakers is correct, and that we are all grammatical genuises by virtue of the fact that this is our language, and we know how to speak it. That for too long English grammar has been the territory of self-proclaimed guardians of what is a largely arbitrary set of rules. That if we treat the subject with real academic rigour, then we will allow for the variety of regional differences and evolution over time.

So, for example, it is not a mistake to use who instead of whom; to split an infinitive; to emphasise a superlative with ‘most’, as in “it was the most coldest day”. Ritchie contests that these are all fine, because they are frequently used constructions. That there is no such thing as a common grammatical error amongst native speakers. I find this idea alarming and liberating in equal measure. I confess that when my new mum friend told me “I am getting less hours’ sleep,” even though she was upset inside I was shouting “fewer!” And it makes me happy when someone recognises that ‘data’ are plural. But equally, I have never been a fan of whom; I firmly believe that more than one referendum are referendums, and more than one forum are forums. Language evolves. As well as varying enormously by region. And part of me loves the idea that ‘thunk’ is just as valid a past participle of the verb ‘to think’ as ‘thought’.

As someone who makes my living communicating, and selecting the most appropriate language to convey information effectively, I have definitely noticed that non-standard use of English is becoming more acceptable. Regional dialects are being reappropriated as an authentic way to communicate and engage with people in a particular area. In Sheffield, we’re loving the use of ‘reyt’ instead of ‘very’ for example (and indeed, there’s a use of the present continuous with the verb ‘to love’, which even just fifteen years ago when I was teaching English was definitely considered incorrect – but now, probably largely thanks to Macdonalds, is absolutely ubiquitous (and yes, to the eagle-eyed amongst you, I salute your pedantry, but Ritchie would argue that something can be absolutely ubiquitous, so in his honour we’ll leave that. Aaahh I am disappearing into a black hole of endless analysis of my own sentence constructions…))

But where is the line between valuing authentic dialects, and allowing a big messy grammatical free for all? I don’t know. And this book left me torn between my love of a beautifully turned out traditionally correct sentence in our wonderful language, and a democratic appreciation of all the English language that people naturally use.

Ritchie clearly revels in casting himself as something of a grammatical anarchist, knowing full well the controversy that he is courting. But he has robust credentials, and argues the case persuasively. Even if his lack of snobbery does not extend to tolerance of red corduroy trousers or odd socks. Both of which I have worn a lot in my time. And for some reason he regards as terrible crimes much greater than saying “I is going to the shops.”

This book won’t appeal to everyone. In fact, quite possibly just to me and a couple of my equally geeky friends! But I enjoyed it very much. An entertaining book about grammar. Who’d’ve thunk it.

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