I recently took part in a discussion in the Financial Times (FT) about the importance of grammar. Now, I do not regard myself as a grammar expert, but I felt very strongly about the views that were being expressed.
The discussion was started by an article by Michael Skapinker, one of the few journalists who regularly looks at issues relating to the use of languages in business.
In his most recent column, Skapinker asked this question: "What is the second most useful language?" His answer for English native speakers was as simple as it was sensible: "Any language. ... So that you know what your colleagues, fellow conference delegates and negotiators are going through..."
The column that provoked my intervention, however, was an earlier one, called "Grammar is a vital tool for any executive". In the column, Skapinker rightly argued that business leaders need to know grammar so that they can communicate clearly and effectively.
But he also pointed out, again rightly in my view, that: "Grammar is important not because it teaches you what is correct. That changes over time and place, although it is useful to know what self-appointed language guardians regard as correct. Grammar matters because it shows how the language is put together."
So far, so good. But Skapinker's column inevitably drew approval from the grammar prescriptivists. These are people who promote strict rules such as "don't split infinitives" or "don't end a sentence with a preposition" as if these were laws handed down to Moses along with the Ten Commandments. In fact, many of these "rules", such as the one about split infinitivies, were invented by man in the 19th century.
One FT reader, in recommending this grammar book, which is highly prescriptive, approvingly quoted its author Neville Gwynne: "Grammar is the science of using words rightly, leading to thinking rightly, leading to deciding rightly, without which — as both common sense and experience show — happiness is impossible. Therefore: happiness depends at least partly on good grammar."
I regard this not as common sense, but as utter nonsense. Or, as I put it more tactfully in my reader's letter to the FT, as "ambiguous and unproven". Even assuming that we can accurately measure happiness and define terms such as "good grammar", "using words rightly", "thinking rightly" and "deciding rightly" — all of which I doubt — I have seen no evidence of a causal relationship between "good grammar" (whatever that is) and happiness.
A psychoanalytic pyschotherapist from London instantly disagreed with me, replying to the FT: "Rightly or wrongly that which is seen as a normative marker of an educated person becomes that which is socially 'acceptable'. The desire to be accepted (and promoted) is a fundamental need with its roots in species survival... Hence feeling 'accepted' contributes to happiness. QED."
"QED" is Latin, which, by the way, is much loved by grammar prescriptivists such as Gwynne. It stands for "quod erat demonstrandum" meaning "which had to be demonstrated". It's the sort of thing that Latin lovers, so to speak, say when they think they have proved their point.
Sorry, but I am still not convinced of the grammar/happiness link. The pyschotherapist's reasoning may seem logical. But where is the evidence that people who speak (or write) what the "self-appointed language guardians" call "good grammar" feel more accepted by society and that, as a result, they are happier? Or that those who don't speak and write this way would be happier if they did? Theory alone is not enough here. We need evidence.
I wouldn't necessarily go as far as a colleague of mine who says that "grammarians have always seemed to me to be a miserable bunch". But until I see concrete evidence from scientic studies, I will continue to regard the argument that "good grammar" (again, whatever that is) contributes to happiness as totally spurious.