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Subtle, seductive, subversive and witty language guide

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Grammar Matters

The Social Significance of How We Use Language

By Jila Ghomeshi

Arbeiter Ring, 101 pages, $13

Like, these are good book, she is. Just the drift be catched, grammar ain't right nor wrong. Nohow. Grammar be just like people speaks it. LOL.

Enough already!

Why do some of us get upset by the use of "it's" instead of "its" for the possessive of "it," or by "there" for "their" or "they're"? Do we have the right to look down our noses at people who misspell or punctuate incorrectly?

Lovers of the venerable The Elements of Style by Americans William Strunk and E.B. White will always think of that book as "the little book" so beautiful described in White's introduction. Grammar Matters, by University of Manitoba linguist Jila Ghomeshi, is also a little book, and although perhaps not as witty, it is subtle, seductive, subversive and extremely entertaining.

Grammar Matters is clearly written to counter English journalist Lynne Truss's Eats, Shoots and Leaves, the bestseller that explained the importance of good punctuation.

Ghomeshi, who happens to be the sister of CBC Radio host Jian Ghomeshi, says that there is no "proper" grammar, and to judge another's grammar adversely is to apply class-based distinctions that have no basis in logic, precision or authority.

"[W]hat people who abhor non-standard grammar are often expressing is a prejudice: a preconceived idea that is not based on reason, experience, or factual knowledge."

And that's not all: "[N]either the use of standard grammar, nor the championing of it," she writes, "is indicative of superior intelligence. In many cases it is mere intolerance and the articulation of privilege and hierarchy."

Truss and her ilk are called by linguists "prescriptive grammarians." As Ghomeshi says, "The relationship between a prescriptive grammarian and a linguist is like the relationship between an etiquette expert and an anthropologist."

She proves her point with clarity, concise writing and examples that jump off the page with unnerving pertinence. They are arranged in a logical order that shows how illogical and imprecise English can be. The page on the many meanings of "over" is one powerful example of many. A proponent of "proper" English will be humbled by this book.

Ghomeshi points out that Standard (prescribed) English is only a few centuries old, that prescriptive grammars began with a rising middle class that sought to lose its lower-class roots. Before that time, spelling, punctuation and grammar were creatively flexible.

She acknowledges that there is a value to using Standard English as a means of universal communication, just as Mandarin Chinese is used to bridge the tremendous gaps among Chinese dialects.

Dialects and different kinds of grammar are, however, useful and important to people who want to differentiate themselves from others or to feel part of a group, and those people should not be condemned for that.

Because Ghomeshi writes specifically against those who impose moral values on grammar, and because she is a descriptive grammarian, she does not deal with an argument in favour of prescriptive grammar based on esthetic, rather than moral, grounds.

Good writers use grammar consistently: Burns, Chaucer, Shakespeare, cummings, rap artists, or James -- writers who all use very different English -- do not vary the internal rules with which they have chosen to write.

In addition, good writers make the reader believe that the author stands behind every mark of punctuation and every word on the page -- that the author has paid the reader the compliment of taking great care in the writing of the text.

Perhaps those who do not like to read misspelled words or badly punctuated writing feel simply that the writer has been lazy and does not care about the reader. That is something about which a reader surely has the right to feel morally outraged.

That aside, Ghomeshi has written a careful and intelligent book that teaches the reader a great deal about linguistics and about the English language. The book is a gem.

Lawrie Cherniack is a Winnipeg mediator and grammar geek.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 26, 2011 H10

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