Subject agrees with the author

3rd May 1996 at 01:00
Edward Blishen remembers being dismayed by grammar lessons at school and welcomes a modern approach to the task. His name was Judson: and, of course, we called him Judy. He should have been courteously prevented from becoming a teacher on the grounds that his nature was dry, he was made irascible by liveliness in others, and he was deaf.

In.stead he was allowed to teach us grammar. His subject was meant to be the whole of English, but his care was only for the bits out of which it was made. Most of our time was spent in the engine-room of language, among the parts of speech, bolting and unbolting - assembling a sentence only instantly, guiltily, to break it up again. We had a textbook, of course, welded together by someone with the unsuitably romantic name of Lancelot Oliphant. I loved language, and was dismayed by the implication that only through this activity, bleak and bewildering, could it be approached.

Well, of course, it is an old story, dreadfully out of date. Judy has long since vanished, hand in hand with Lancelot Oliphant. He would have been dismayed, in his turn, by this new, splendid, sensible, accessible, totally unprescriptive, painstakingly descriptive Oxford English Grammar. The examples of written or spoken language it draws upon all come from what it calls "real English". (That's English that has been verifiably used by someone without thought of its becoming a grammatical illustration.) It is itself an account of the engine-room, but a most unoppressive one. It is against any idea of causing bewilderment - or guilt - in respect of grammar. It is arranged beautifully clearly. It is content to be thought of as a reference book, or a textbook, or both.

A measure of the serenity it brings to the scene lies in its not pretending (Judy would have had hysterics) that the notion of a sentence is to be covered by any single definition. At points where the best of grammarians must be uncertain what is going on, it confesses it doesn't know - as when it says that "bless" in the cry: "Andy, bless him, fixed my porch light today", might be an imperative, but just as probably is a subjunctive with an implied subject.

So is this a field in which, having left folly behind, we have become largely reasonable? As to the kind of enterprise that this book represents, yes. But a huge problem remains. Sidney Greenbaum points to it when he carefully reports, without comment, that "there have been recent calls in both Britain and the United States for the reintroduction of grammar teaching".

I'd be alarmed to find myself among the callers, were I calling for the resurrection of Judy and Lancelot Oliphant. However, I feel the need for something else that is not there, and I believe Professor Greenbaum might supply it.

A few weeks ago I was spending a family Easter on a farm in Yorkshire and a sharp-eared eight-year-old asked: "Why did you stay 'with whom'?" For a moment his identity became confused in my grandfatherly head with that of H W Fowler ("that instinctive grammatical moraliser", as Otto Jespersen called him), who carried us a long way on the road from Oliphant to Greenbaum, and memorably took Shakespeare to task for writing "whom" when he should have written "who" ("Young Ferdinand, whom they suppose is drown'd"). But then I was face to face again with our lack of a playful grammar that addresses itself to the understanding of the young.

If we are to be schooled at all in English, then almost from the beginning we must know how to discuss the rights and wrongs (and uncertains) of it. We must have a simple, diverting language in which we can say why a usage works or why it doesn't, or what we need to do to turn a clouded utterance into a clear one. This unrealised grammar must take into account awkward truths such as the fact you cannot define a sentence to the satisfaction of someone who doesn't already know what a sentence is.

It must reverse the bizarre situation in which human beings, with their astonishing innate gift for grammar, are persuaded that grammar is beyond them, or a barren study. It must be designed to run alongside, and never ahead of, practice in language. Judy turned us all into curious versions of Monsieur Jourdain in Molire's Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme by making nothing of the fact that as we tumbled in and out of the classroom we were quite noisily at home with nouns and verbs and adjectives - circularly defined by him as being describing words, because they described - and that some of us were dripping with commas.

This unrealised grammar must have regard for the fact that grammar is tangled with class and region and with the unique person that any speaker or writer is.

Professor Greenbaum puts it soberly: "An understanding of the nature and functioning of language is part of the general knowledge that we should have about ourselves and the world we live in."

For "should have", thinking particularly of the young, and of the truth that our command of language is much of our command of ourselves, I'd say "desperately need to have".

As a writer by trade, I've spent half an astounded century enjoying what Judy and Oliphant were intent on my not enjoying, or even understanding. The experience of being a working writer is exactly the quality of experience I think the young should have - of coming into possesion of grammar out of a labourer's need for it. Though, since The Oxford Book of Grammar is more than 600 busy pages long, I really mean coming into possession of an adequate ration of it.

I shall be glad to have Professor Greenbaum at my elbow, but my forays through his book have, here and there, caused me chagrin. I notice, on the other hand, that in his record of sources for the examples analysed there's a cruelly brief list for "Printed: Creative". Is he - so orderly, so unoppressive, so thorough, so gently not quite permissive, with his careful summaries of every chapter, and his model of a glossary - is he too sober?

But he could easily make up for that by producing what we so much need: a thoroughly practical, fitting]y merry grammar for use by and with the young.

The Oxford English Grammar, by Sidney Greenbaum, is published by Oxford University Press at Pounds 25.

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