July 19

I should have went?! – a grammar post

I’m bound to ruffle a few delicate feathers, so let me preface this by saying that yes, I do make a number of sweeping generalizations and maybe even a bit stereotyping, but it’s not because I want to offend, it’s simply because I can’t address every one of the 360 million or so native English speakers individually.

One thing that has puzzled me, pretty much ever since I started learning English some 15 years ago, is the amount of horrible grammar I see in my daily life. And I’m honestly perplexed as to why. Now I can only compare it to my own country of Switzerland and maybe the German speaking area of Europe.
There certainly is a lot of bad spelling in German too, things like ‘fielleicht’ instead of ‘vielleicht’ almost hurt my eyes. Spelling doesn’t seem to be a matter of educated vs uneducated either, more so it just seems to be a skill that some people can do and others can’t. A little bit like math, a few get it right away, a few will never get it and the large majority can learn to function at an acceptable level.

Grammar is a different beast though. Things like ‘I should have went’ and ‘your great’ are all too common in English. Even my dentist says, every time I walk in, ‘How’s your teeth?’.

Why is that? I can’t recall an single instant where a German speaking person would mess up something like that. No matter if they’re farmers up in the Alps in a little town in the middle of nowhere. They may have an accent and may not know specialised vocabulary, but their grammar is correct. In fact problems with declensions, tenses or gender are a sure way to identify someone who speaks German as a second language.

So why is it that so many English speakers (and I’m mostly thinking of the US and Canada, because that’s what I’m exposed to) don’t get simple grammar right?

Lack of education?
I think all of us who have learned a second language at some point would agree that learning another language is what really teaches you your own language. Suddenly you understand the reasons for why we say something a certain way. I think with English basically being the lingua franca of the planet, many people don’t ever bother to learn a second language. I happen to think that’s a bad idea for a variety of reasons I mentioned here, but that’s not really the point. Fact is that many English speakers don’t speak a second language and therefore may have never had the kind of focus on grammar many people, who happen to speak something other than English as their native tongue, had. Though at the same time, Canada is bilingual and most people have had at least the basics of French, yet when I talk to people the idea that a table could have a gender or that conjugation is a whole lot more complicated in other languages, is completely foreign to them.

Lack of proper schooling?
Especially in the States the divide between poor and rich is a lot bigger than in Switzerland. At the end of the day, kids learn from the parents first and foremost. If parents have horrid grammar it stands to reason that the kids would talk the same way. It almost seems slang to say things like ‘I is going over there right now’ or ‘I don’t want no carrots’. And I suppose things pass on and become more and more common. The quality of the schools is a whole other can of worms I don’t want to go into here, but I think it definitely plays a role. Another reason in my opinion is the use of textspeak for instant messaging and rarely ever reading an actual book, as is the case for many kids and teens these days. The less exposure to proper grammar one has, the less likely they are to use it and this sort of ties in with all of the above reasons.
Yet like I said above, it’s not really just a matter of education. I’ve read books that say ‘he could of gone to school…’ and as mentioned above, even my dentist doesn’t get things right. And I dare to say the ‘how’s your teeth?’ is a much more glaring example than an grammatical error like ‘every student has their book’. This one, even though grammatically wrong – ‘every student’ singular, ‘has’ singular, ‘book’ singular and ‘their’ plural – seems to be widely accepted as it implies more than one student and it is the only neutral pronoun, otherwise you’d have to say ‘his or her book’.
The fact remains that it is not only the poorer people with less access to good schools who have terrible grammar.

Nation of Immigrants
The US and Canada are both nations of immigrants and a lot of people speak English as a second language. Over the years this could have had an influence on the grammar of the population and the evolution of grammar in general. I’m curious to know what it’s like in the UK though. The immigrant argument wouldn’t work as well for that, but I’m actually not sure if the bad grammar is as widespread as it seems to be in North America.

Maybe it is also a bit of a cultural or historical phenomenon too. A way to indicate that you can make something out of yourself even if you haven’t gone to Harvard. As Craig Ferguson likes to say, in Scotland in the 50s you were brought up with the understanding that you are worth nothing and the best you can hope for is to be a decent factory worker. In the US every kid is brought up with the belief that they can be the next president. I’m paraphrasing and it’s an exaggeration of course, but it pretty much hits the nail on the head.

Evolution of language
Language also naturally evolves and things like ‘every student with their book’, ‘I wish I was’ instead of ‘I wish I were’ and the loss of ‘whom’ are often times not considered bad grammar anymore, but more a natural evolution of language.

At the end of the day, communication is the most important thing however and that can be done with bad grammar. Though as the famous saying goes: ‘Grammar is the difference between knowing your shit and knowing you’re shit.’

Last but not least, let me put in the disclaimer that these are my thoughts, I’m far from an expert and I’m well aware that I am not perfect either.