METM15 presentation

Grammar myths from the 18th to the 21st century:
prescriptivism rules?

 John Bates, Tarragona, Spain

Based on – and inspired by – Christian Brassington’s talk on grammatical myths at METM13 in Poblet, this presentation delves deeper into some of the ‘spurious’ rules that were the bane of many generations of schoolchildren’s lives before the 1960s and which have become so deeply entrenched in the popular mindset that they endure to the present day. It is generally held that myths such as not ending a sentence with a preposition, not beginning a sentence with a conjunction and, the granddaddy of them all, not splitting an infinitive can be traced back to the prescriptivist monsters of the 18th century who were intent on forcing the English language into the Latin mould. But is this really so? Were the 18th-century grammarians responsible for these myths? And if they were, can we discard what they were saying as mere personal preference and prejudice? Aren’t we maligning a generally well-meaning body of (mainly) men? And what about the myths themselves? Should we discard them lock, stock and barrel? Or do they contain a kernel of truth that we can salvage and apply to our 21st-century texts? This talk will attempt to show that if 18th-century prescriptivism has endured for so long, then it has done so for a reason, and that the wisdom passed down through the ages can still be of use to 21st-century descriptivists. Well…some of it anyway!

John Bates first became interested in grammar when he started learning foreign languages as a young man. This interest was reinforced during his time at the University of Sheffield (Hispanic Studies), when he realised that the Yorkshire tykes spoke a language that had little in common with the dulcet tones of his native Surrey. John is the head of the Language Service of the Rovira i Virgili University and responsible for organizing language courses and providing an editing and translation service for university staff. He has been living in Tarragona for the last 30 years.