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Grammar and Power

Mathematician, theoretical physicist and software professional (15 years experience). Curious about everything and keen to share knowledge.

Grammar is a game of power

Grammar is a game of power

When someone tells you your writing contains errors of grammar, they normally do not care about your grammar and are only trying to make a dominance play. There is a simple response that will almost always send them away with their tail between their legs [1]. Complaints about grammar, however, mask deeper and darker political and social implications from snobbery to colonialism.

Language and Power

Conquering countries, sometimes deliberately, sometimes for administrative convenience, treat the language of the conquered as inferior to that of the conqueror. Latin became the language of Christendom and, having survived the death of the Roman Empire, the language of power, learning and law for over a millennium. Latin also differentiated the English elite from the great unwashed. Once Latin ceased to be the daily language of the elite, other languages took the role of social marker: in Imperial Russia, aristocrats spoke in French amongst themselves and in Russian to the servants. In the Philippines, the rich spoke in Spanish to each other but addressed the servants in the local dialect.

Dialects and Power

In Russia and the Philippines, there was no attempt to destroy the native language. In the United Kingdom, soon after the Act of Union of 1707, Gaelic was forbidden as part of an effort to destroy Scottish culture.

When the elite and the great unwashed speak the same language, you cannot use language to show social status. The answer is to treat the vocabulary and grammar of the elite, the 1% in modern terms, as superior to that of the 99%. Thus in the UK, speakers of local dialects were excluded from positions of power or influence. Shaw summed up the resulting situation with admirable concision in the preface to his play Pygmalion.

"It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him."

Grammar is a travel guide that some consider a rule book

Grammar is a travel guide that some consider a rule book

English Grammar and the 1%

Grammar is a set of rules for defining well formed statements in the language. The word also applies to the rules used by a group of speakers, which makes grammar a cultural phenomenon. Since it is cultural, xenophobia and snobbery explain why grammar is often used to describe a feature of the language the speaker finds objectionable, especially in the case of the written language. To an Englishman or American, Strine and Kiwi may be considered correct when spoken but not when written [7].

In The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker points out that notions of grammar and “Good” English arose in the 18th century when England became a world power. The dominant grammar was derived from Latin, which was viewed as a language of enlightenment, precision and logic. Latin, the language of the most powerful Western nation of the classical period, took this crown, rather than Greek for a variety of reasons, one being that Latin was the language of the law and to a lesser extent of government. Latin as a model for grammar highlights the relationship between language and power. Like keeping pornography in the locked library cabinets of the rich, this was a way to differentiate between the great unwashed and the rich, therefore civilised, elite.

Modelling English grammar on Latin grammar helped the yuppy youngsters of the day learn Latin. Competing publishers (not grammarians) introduced more and more rules based on Latin, for example not splitting infinitives (impossible in Latin). To an upper class person, the written and spoken versions of the language used by the lower class became ungrammatical. Similarly, in the USA, the language of poor whites is regarded as inferior to that of rich whites and in turn the language of “white trash” is regarded as superior to Black American. In Scotland, socially ambitious parents forced their children to speak English, not Scottish. Luckily, most children rapidly learned when and how to use which language.

The Sanskrit Connection

The desire to prescribe how people should speak arose long before the 18th century in Ancient India. Sanskrit is an ancient formal language whose grammar is complete and fixed. Around 500 BC, Pannini wrote a prescriptive grammar of Sanskrit that fixed the language and the persuasive notion that truth could only be expressed in grammatically correct Sanskrit also became fixed in the educated Indian mind.

In 18th century England, there was initially awe at the perceived perfect structure of Sanskrit, though this later ebbed away. It seems very likely therefore that the drive towards prescriptive grammar was in part driven by fascination with Sanskrit more than attachment to Latin.

Latin and Sanskrit may have motivated the drive for prescriptive grammar but other psychological factors may have been involved. Academics love to create order out of chaos and some love to lay down rules for others. And some, perhaps most pupils, would rather memorise a set of rules than think for themselves while non-academic social climbing learners would have preferred a set of rules as a way of being able to mimic educated speech in a short while so teachers duly obliged and provided a simple linguistic playpen for their pupils.

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How some think Grammar should be taught

How some think Grammar should be taught

Description Versus Prescription: The Inner Civil Servant

Grammar was initially produced to describe how words were assembled into structures of meaning. Dictionaries were invented to describe what words were used to mean [6].

Once language usage, like anything else, is described and written down, everyone’s inner bureaucrat takes over and tries to insist that this is how it should be done and anything else is the result of laziness or poor education. The Inner bureaucrat, or inner little Stalin, also tries to use this to wield power over others. There is or was at least one employer who gave cleaners a test of grammar as part of an interview, doubtless unaware that the candidate may speak a working class English rather than upper class English.

Since the rules of grammar were written down in the 18th century, today’s grammar nazis are trying to use 21st century concepts and fossilise the English language in 18th century grammar. This is possible because while it sounds pompous, 18th century elite English is understandable today. Had the rules of grammar been discovered in the time of Chaucer or even as Beowulf was being composed, the grammar nazis would have a much harder time. Conversely, use of a modern reference grammar that reflects actual usage today would require the grammar nazis to dismiss Shakespeare, Dryden and Dickens as semiliterate and poorly educated.

Why We Need Grammar

Language is for communication. A grammatically perfect sentence that does not communicate its meaning is useless. A grammatically flawed sentence that communicates its meaning perfectly is doing its job. A grammatically imperfect sentence that communicates its meaning is better than a grammatically perfect sentence that is hard to follow and tends to disguise its meaning.

Spoken and written grammar differ. The number of verb endings in spoken French is far lower than the number of written endings, with the precise role of each element determined largely from context and body language. These clues are missing in the written language and the written endings supply the missing information.

Grammar is thus one of the three handmaidens; syntax, semantics and pragmatics, the muses of language. These mean roughly how words are assembled, what the assembled words are intended to mean and how language used: the intent of the speaker or writer. For written languages, there is also the medieval invention known as punctuation, which became needed once reading aloud fell out of fashion.

In Summary

Language can be used as a tool of social control when one country conquers another. The dialect of the rulers has to be marked out as superior to that of the serfs. In England, this was achieved by creating a Latin-based grammar that was the mark of the 1%. Self-styled grammar experts know little about grammar as understood by grammarians and should be challenged to support their pronouncements. These “experts”, many of whom have been demolished in print by Stephen Pinker, are expressing social and political prejudices, not linguistic truths, in order to express their superiority.

It might be going to extremes to call an insistence on “Good Grammar” an authoritarian attitude and call these people authoritarian followers, but they often seem resistant to the truth that grammar is a guideline, not a straitjacket.

Written grammar is defined by a literate elite, hence “Good Grammar” becomes the extent to which the writer has absorbed the canons of the elite.

“Good Grammar” is used by the elite as a tool to reinforce their power. Generally, grammar pedants are not aware this is what they are doing

Trying to keep to “Good” Grammar is to concede to the local dominant elite. It may be politically necessary to do this, for example when applying for a job or a loan, but try not to internalise the values of the elite (at least not without thinking about them) or their grammar.


  1. Just to ask them to send you a copy of the pages in the reference grammar they used that indicate each error. Reference grammars tend to be over a thousand pages, cost a fortune and be excellent cures for insomnia so you are unlikely to hear any more from them.
  2. Wikipedia, Syntax
  3. Wikipedia on Grammar
  4. The Language Instinct: Stephen Pinker, Harper Perennial Modern Classics; 1 2000, dissects the “Language Mavens” from the viewpoint of a professional academic linguist.
  5. The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy: Daved Graebar, Melville House 2015
  6. Usually words have, for historical reasons, a number of meanings and the changes in spelling prior to the invention of dictionaries give a clue to how words were pronounced.
  7. Every language has its own syntax and its dialects may have their own distinct syntax. English dialects include Standard English, Geordie and Cockney. Scotland has two major Scottish dialects: three if you include Glaswegian. Every Scottish city has its own dialect, in Ireland Dubliners have problems with the Cork dialect, Germans cannot understand Swiss German, a Swiss friend told me he had problems understanding Swiss German outside the Cities, and in Germany I was told that “Schwabisch” is not German. The variation within and between countries (consider American, Strine, Kiwi, Indian English and Taglish for a start) derails the notion of “correct” grammar which can a most apply to a certain class at a certain time.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

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