In her right hand – right being traditionally associated with correctness, orthodoxy, skill, dexterity – the young woman is holding a watering can; carefully, attentively, lovingly, she’s watering some attractively flowering plants. Around her left arm is coiled a scroll, inscribed in Latin: translated, they read “a meaningful utterance which can be written down, pronounced in the proper way”. Standing before Laurent de la Hyres’ 1650 painting in the National Gallery the other day I felt I could reach out and touch those petals, those terracotta pots, but despite its naturalism this is no actual lady, those are no actual flowers. The lady is a personification of Grammatica, the flowers symbolic of young minds; you get the idea – grammar is the water for young minds to grow. I like this concept, of grammar as life-giving, affirmative; it’s a refreshing palate cleanser for those legions of pupils for whom the word grammar summons vivid mental images of dusty classrooms, even dustier teachers, and a general sense of confusion, weariness and tedium. Any primary school teachers struggling to implement Michael Gove’s English curriculum, with its heavy emphasis on such arcana as the fronted adverbial, might need to stand as I did in front of The Allegory of Grammar, and ruefully contemplate the spoils of time.
Le Hyre’s painting, inspired by the allegorical portraits in Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia of 1645, reflected a world where the importance of grammar, in its broader sense of the grasp of languages, was unchallenged; Medieval England’s original grammar schools, or scolae grammaticales, existed primarily to teach Latin to churchmen. In the pre-Reformation, the ubiquity of Latin as the medium of sacred texts reflected the mysteries of Christian faith, while being also an effective method of guaranteeing exclusivity – ordinary people needed the priest, or vicar, to encounter God. The association between grammar and power was undisputed: for translating the scriptures into broadly intelligible English, Wycliffe was punished posthumously – exhumed by the Catholic church, his remains were burned, along with his books, and the ashes flung into the river. Perhaps recognising the danger inherent in grammar, and feeling the need for a word meaning magic and enchantment, 17th-century Scots coined the word glamour; after all, what more mysteriously potent than the laws which enable words to be meaningfully written down? Glamour has grown up far from its birth parent, and leads an entirely different, and, well, more glamorous, life.
But in the modern world, grammar is a fraught, and politicised topic – there’s a tension between approaching grammar as prescriptive, seeing it as a set of rules to be enforced, and as pragmatic, an attempt to understand and reflect on the way language works in practice. Prescriptivists, who – or, ahem, whom – I suspect are in the majority, like to imagine grammar as an unchanging series of rules and precepts. Adhering to Standard English grammar, and pedantically pulling rank on those who don’t, is a familiar version of one-upmanship, often sharpened by the Scylla and Charybdis of perceived racial and gender hierarchies.
It’s perhaps little wonder that typing ‘grammar’ into Google throws up “grammar Nazi”; adherence to supposed rules apparently synonymous with SS Einsatzgruppen and concentration squads. Apart from the fact that using any form of knowledge as a way of belittling other people is a crude from of bullying, the problem is that knowledge of the rules only really teaches you when to ignore them. Asking a friend with whom they were going to the pub, or answering the phone by declaring it is I, are two pretty infallible ways of quickly becoming friendless. Ideas of correct grammar are, anyway, not immutable; like fashions, they change. Any of my teachers, God forbid, reading this article would have crossed out the sentence-opening conjunction ‘but’ in the previous paragraph, using the argument that co-ordinating conjunctions by definition must join, and therefore cannot open a sentence. But to know this is, well, to feel free to ignore it. And of course non-standard grammar can be as expressive as standard – as a child I was enraptured by Captain Kirk’s opening declaration of intent “to boldly go”, while Mick Jagger’s heartfelt claim “I can’t get no satisfaction” would sound at best peculiar in its standard version. Mrs Morel, in D.H.Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, is fascinated by her future husband’s distinctly non-standard Nottinghamshire dialect: “Shouldn’t ter like it?” he asked tenderly. “’Appen not, it ’ud dirty thee.” She had never been “thee’d” and “thou’d” before. And as for Walter Morel, it was Gertrude’s southern pronunciation and a purity of English which thrilled him to hear.
From my own perspective as a teacher of English, I’m acutely aware of the tensions and contradictions within the language and our way of understanding it. The contemporary obsession with grammar as an enforcement of unchanging rules can all too easily become nothing more than the naming of parts, stifling creativity; and much as I’d like to say otherwise, it isn’t exclusively Michael Gove’s fault. In Elizabeth Gaskell’s excellent Victorian novel North and South, Margaret visits a school in her childhood village during a grammar lesson:
“One of the girls was stumbling over the apparently simple word ‘a,’ uncertain what to call it. ‘A’, an indefinite article,’ said Margaret, mildly. ‘I beg your pardon,’ said the Vicar’s wife … ‘but we are taught by Mr. Milsome to call ‘a’ an — who can remember?’ ‘An adjective absolute,’ said half-a-dozen voices at once. And Margaret sat abashed. The children knew more than she did. Margaret spoke no more during the lesson.”
I love Gaskell’s wry humour here, and it’s scarcely surprising that Margaret spoke no more; we’ve all been there.
Yet, how enriching it is to be able to think about grammar. In Hamlet’s to be or not to be, the repeated infinitive verb shows the tormented student, framing existence and non-existence as abstract concepts, distancing himself from the messier, and more physical notions of life and death while equally escaping the temporal dimensions of past, present, or future which are implicit in finite verbs. It’s one of the reasons that modern translations of Shakespeare are so misleading: “shall I kill myself or not?” is scarcely the same thing. Or look at the opening of T.S.Eliot’s The Waste Land,
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
where the repeated participial verbs are subtly disorientating, pointing up the way in which ceaseless natural activity only emphasises the sterility of early 20th-century European life. And what about the opening of Dickens’s Bleak House, which defiantly flouts the rules of regular grammar; of the opening 16 sentences, probably only one would pass the sternest test of a prescriptivist grammarian, but here’s Dickens the journalist, vividly depicting Victorian London as morally fragmented and dysfunctional, and in no mood to respect the rules of syntax.
In Foyles’ bookshop last week, I was tempted by a tote bag, with the slogan “Good grammar is sexy” (Discuss, banishing all thoughts of Michael Gove…) Which brings us back to Laurent de la Hyre’s lady; benign, supremely confident, glamorous; and, yes, sexy. There’s no question in her mind or in mine that she’s watering flowers, not stifling them, and whatever they’re called, they will all blossom most wonderfully.