Grammar: the generation gap


Once a week for about the last five years, I’ve sneaked off to a two-hour Italian lesson at a language college in Birmingham. I’ve loved it, though it’s been a challenge. Strange though it may sound to some, I like learning Italian grammar rules.

I’ve recently stopped going to these lessons, but an email exchange with a client a few days ago about different people’s sometimes wildly varying opinions on the rules of grammar made me think about some of the discussions that went on in these Italian classes.

All of my classmates were at least ten years older than me, and some of them were probably at least twenty years older. That’s irrelevant in terms of learning together as a group, but when we talked about British English grammar, it was clear that we had different opinions.

Italian grammar

Our teacher was a big fan of grammar and liked nothing better than to spend a good forty minutes each lesson entertaining us with things like the joys of indirect and direct object placement, how to construct the imperfect subjunctive tense and why it’s OK to say ‘I don’t know nothing’ in Italian.

The generation gap

Sometimes our teacher wanted to compare Italian grammar with British English grammar and would ask us what the equivalent rule is in English. This was when classmates said things like, ‘No, you definitely can’t start a sentence with “and”’ or ‘You can’t split an infinitive’. I didn’t really want to get into an argument about this type of thing during the lesson, because it wasn’t usually important in terms of the Italian construction we were discussing. It was interesting, though, that the answers were usually given with certainty and seemed to be agreed on by everyone except me. This gave me the impression that when my classmates were at school, grammar was probably taught in terms of absolute rules that couldn’t be broken.

The grammar gap continues – or does it?

I have two teenage children, and sometimes I’m surprised by how they use language in a different way to me. They use new words that I’ve never heard of, for a start. And they sometimes use constructions like ‘I’ll go do that’ (which I think of as more of a North American way of putting it) rather than ‘I’ll go and do that’, which is how I’d phrase it. On the whole, though, the gap between how I use written language and how they use it is very small, so perhaps it had already become acceptable to break the rules by the time I was at high school in the 1980s and has been so ever since. (And whether ‘the rules’ are in fact rules is probably best left for another day.)

A couple of weeks ago, though, I was proofreading a storybook written for children about to start school when the publisher contacted me to say that the teacher who was due to sign off the storybook had said that a sentence beginning with ‘But’ would have to be changed because children are now taught that it’s wrong to start a sentence this way. So perhaps what was taught twenty years before I started school is now being taught again and the grammar differences have come full circle since then.

Even if that’s the case, it seems that today there is a far bigger grey area than there used to be, even in formal writing. Is it right to stick to what you believe to be the rules even when this makes the sentence awkward or difficult to read? I don’t think so, but that’s a whole other story.