I sat in church last night for ‘watch night’ to see in the new year and was reading the service bulletin. I noted that it reproduced the Bible passages that were due to be read. One passage was listed as versus x to y. What? In case you don’t know, the word should be verses. I pondered a series of exchanges I’d had about discrimination against people for being ungrammatical. If I took the same approach, would I refuse to participate in the service? If grammar showed seriousness, as some would like to argue, the business of religion was full of jokers. Jesus!
But, I know it’s not so. Earlier in the day I’d been listening to some of the congregation discussing Vestry matters. Each is, or had been, a senior lay member in the parish, closely involved in the church’s affairs. Two were senior attorneys; another was a financial officer of a major corporation. They were all university graduates. Now, that didn’t vouch for their command of English, but it did establish that they were not fools.
In former times, when documents were put together in handwritten or typewritten form, it was possible that mistakes happened in formal paperwork. I remember the agony of completing my thesis and having made the necessary carbon copies and sent them to be bound, after proofreading umpteen times. What?! Where did that mistake come from? Sorry, from where did that mistake come? Well, my parents lived with it and my children and their heirs will have do the same. Somehow, I defended the thesis well enough and no one said I was any the lesser for the mistake.
However, technology has facilitated producing documents that look professional and can be easily corrected and checked electronically. Many text programmes have spell checks. However, tools like this are of little use in the hands of people who really don’t know the language. If anything, they tend to give a false sense of security. People tend to check less and timetables may be shorter because things can be produced more quickly.
The errors in grammar may be nothing more than a reflection of haste, or other pressures.
Anyway, let’s say that the church bulletin fell foul to a human error.
Few people are true masters of their native language. It was a revelation to me at the IMF that the best exponents of English were not native speakers. They often learn a foreign language in its purest form. Native speakers of English pick it up from home, school, work and social contacts. Many may never have formal training in all of the grammar of the language. English language rules seem less clear, in terms of verb structure. Languages like French or German, with declensions and strict gender agreements make for easier learning. France even has a body to protect the language and rule on its development. But, my French friends give me a bly if I use singular endings on group plural nouns, or if I forget or don’t know the gender of the noun. La, le…er…ah…
But, many English-speaking people have taken it on themselves to police the language. I do it. But, I try to do it with a view to showing what’s wrong to those and others who might not know or notice. I don’t go beyond that unless it seems substantial to an activity. I went further with a sign Digicel had at its parking area. I suggested a correction just so that the image of the company would not suffer. I’ve not gone back to check if the change were made.
Not all of us know all the elements of good grammar. We may know many. But, our language is full of pitfalls that have trapped many. We know some of the obvious ones, such as the they’re/their/there trio. I remember giving my young daughter a simple way to remember which to use. She grasped it when she was about 8. I looked at an essay she wrote, recently; there was a mix up between the trio. I asked if she remembered what I’d taught her. She had. I asked her to apply it. She did and corrected her error. Why hadn’t she done it before? She gave me an explanation about being rushed.
I was brought up with British English spelling. It annoyed me no end to have to accept and know American spelling when I worked in the US. I often had to deal with a harder time rereading my own work to deal with the duality.
As I noted above, some of the best exponents of English were non-native speakers. I remember how the institution for which I worked put many of us through training to write better. It focused on using more active and less passive expressions. Some people never realized what they’d been doing, and moved into a new world of English usage.
I went to a grammar school. Fitting its status, I did well in English. I travelled with a friend who was the son of a vicar and loved learning about English. We often played word games based on English usage. We were nerds, in that sense. We loved doing The Times crossword; we often won the linguistic tussle and in quick time.
He loved to ‘educate’ classmates in better English usage. His favourite quibble was with the use of possessive with gerunds. Still with me? Don’t worry. Each language has some area that often seems quirky.
I know French, and there it’s the use of the subjunctive. Lost you, again? Fret not. French can be less forgiving. It has forms that are supposed to be used in formal communication. Like learning shorthand, it’s another branch of study in the language. When I was posted to a French-speaking country, I just didn’t know it, but my secretary, trained in Paris, did.
However, I had to do my best when I was working orally. I could sense my counterparts wincing sometimes as I spoke. I was learning on the job higher forms of the language. But, they have me leeway.
Most Jamaicans do not know standard English well. We have a running debate about how to treat the variant of English most know and speak. Is it a language? I would accept it as such. But, there is a formal world that wants standard English. So, most Jamaicans struggle there.
I’m not going to try to correct a Jamaican when he or she uses Patois. As I joked the other day, for us the plural is often the singular plus -dem. I remember my daughter using an app to learn Patois. She was thrilled to learn about di harse-dem.
Some countries with creole-speaking people recognize that, formally. The Seychelles recognizes Creole, French and English. Their official documents are in all three; they wrote to the IMF in that way. Creole is taught in schools.
Going beyond noting what some language rules now deem wrong is a huge step. Rules change. Usage is flexible and more so when a language goes on its travels. The British use words differently to Americans. Many know the awkward ones, such as ‘rubber’. For the British, that’s a pencil eraser. For Americans, it’s a condom. Be ready for a little embarrassing moment asking for what you want when to you travel.
I remember, vividly, going to England as a boy and having to relearn how to speak and use English. I was not condemned by my Patois: I’d gone to a school where we learned standard English and I had that well mastered and could wow the Brits in written and spoken forms. But, I used words like ‘sidewalk’ (British people use ‘pavement’). When you’re young, ridicule stings, especially when you think you’re not at fault. But, I adapted, quickly.
I credit my facility with standard and Patois as the basis for ease with foreign languages. But, there are those who can see only one way to communicate and it’s their way or the highway. Tough on anyone who can’t get there.
I can’t count the number of experts who’ve shown in writing that they never mastered standard English. From plumbers to carpenters to engineers to economists to baristas to barristers to brain surgeons. But, they knew their fields, so well.
When I was a very good football player, I was brought up short by the skills of a classmate. He told me I could do what he did with practice. I worked all summer and learned to juggle better. But, he also improved. He had a head start and I just never caught up. So it is for many with language training. My mate and I played for the same school 1st team. I was fast–county champion sprinter. He had a hard shot. I could outrun any defence. We had good tacklers in defence and great passers. We combined and complimented each other. We won or lost not for our individual skills but how we fared against others on any day. Luck played its part.
Isn’t that how it is in much of life? My neurosurgeon cousin doesn’t know what I do about economics or Europe. He knows more about golf shots than I will ever know. I know Russian. He knows Bolt. We can hold our own in our fields. Would I dismiss him because he doesn’t know the right way to use gerunds? I think not. Just fix my spine, cuz.
Jamaica has long found ways to cripple itself. My way would be to give some gardening leave to those who want to apply what they call standards but are really pet peeves. I could point out the waste of productive capacity. Would they be impressed. I could ask then for a cost-benefit analysis of what they see as important in grammar relative to the task at hand. I could ask then to compute the opportunity costs of awaiting ‘good grammar’.
Should I be that demanding?