Grammar as blood sport
By Diane Hill (January 29, 2020)
Gwynne’s Grammar: The Ultimate Introduction to Grammar and the Writing of Good English, N.M. Gwynne, Vintage, November 26, 2019, 288 pp., $21.00
I am a writer with a shameful secret: Grammar makes me nervous.
I know the basic parts of speech—nouns, pronouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives—but their precise definition sometimes elude me. I tense up at words like conjunction and preposition. What are they again? I despair of ever recalling the meaning of a split infinitive or past participle. I have to look them up every time.
So you may understand why I was genuinely excited to find Gwynne’s Grammar: The Ultimate Introduction to Grammar and the Writing of Good English. “Finally!” I cheered, “I’m going to learn grammar once and for all!”
Alas, my hopes were dashed, though I did enjoy a few laughs and unexpected delights along the way.
When I first open the book in happy anticipation, I am still blissfully unaware of Gwynne’s dubious qualifications and the political uproar his book had been causing in the U.K. since it was first published in 2012 (it was recently published in paperback by Penguin Random House Canada). But more on this later.
I am mildly surprised by the first sentence of what turned out to be a very lengthy preface:
“Much more than is customary, this Preface is intrinsic to a proper understanding of the rest of this book and how to make the best possible use of it. The reader is urged to read it with some care.”
Hmm. That’s rather formal. And a bit scolding.
No matter—a few pages later, he is promising to not only teach me good grammar, but to make me a better, more confident person; he believes proper use of language is essential for clear thinking and even lead to a happier life.
But my surprise deepens to astonishment as he spends several pages boasting about the growing popularity of his book and tediously retelling an argument with his editor about punctuation. Next, he aims a verbal thrashing at well-meaning parents who buy their children picture books—according to Gwynne, illustrations in books “interfere with the learning process.”
He is just getting warmed up.
While Gwynne accepts the necessary addition of new words (such as X-ray), he fiercely argues that most other changes in English usage since, say, 1485 are acts of “ingratitude and vandalism” to our noble ancestors and must be vigorously fought.
It seems the rot really set in during the 1960s, along with—I can only assume—the civil rights movement and second wave feminism.
He is disdainful of gender-neutral language, insisting the masculine pronoun “he” is perfectly fine to stand in for all of humanity. (Really, women are much too sensitive these days.) Referring to an individual as “they” will surely bring about the downfall of civilization. And he rejects the modern use of the word “gender” to describe socially constructed behaviours or personal identity; according to Gwynne, the word is strictly a grammatical term and any other use is simply illiterate.
Some good muscular writing may have charmed me into overlooking these reactionary opinions, but here is a typical paragraph:
“Acquiring an effortless command of grammar, although normally the indispensable foundation of writing that is competent or better, is only part of the struggle in the process of learning to write well consistently. Once that technical side is learnt, what then needs careful study is how to apply it in order to produce whatever effect one wishes to at any time. That is to say: how to make one’s writing crystal-clear, or attractive and enjoyable, or persuasive, or compelling, or any or all of these. That is further to say: how to develop a writing style capable of suiting any useful purpose.”
As the preface grinds to a merciful end, I enjoy a sharp bark of laughter at the self-delusion in the closing sentence:
“…I hope I have succeeded in encouraging you to turn to Chapter 1 in an eager frame of mind.”
Apart from this long-winded preface, Gwynne’s book has three main parts. The first is formally titled Gwynne’s Grammar and contains all the expected grammar rules along with his own unique admonitions. The last section contains lists of definitions, irregular verbs, special prepositions, and plurals.
Surprisingly, the whole middle of the book is a reprint of the original 1918 edition of William Strunk’s Elements of Style, which is now in the public domain. Gwynne believes the highly respected 1957 edition—published by E.B. White, a former student of Strunk’s—was a disaster that diminished Strunk’s genius. With breathtaking audacity, Gwynne removes all of White’s changes, adding several of his own.
Despite Gwynne’s arrogant verbosity, as I turn to Chapter One I am still hopeful. Surely, I will find something useful.
Alas, the title promises only more scolding: “This is a Serious Business.”
I flip to Chapter Two: “A Note of Encouragement.”
Chapter Three: “Further Encouragement.”
I cannot remember feeling more thoroughly discouraged.
Bravely, I push on through his maddeningly passive paragraphs and impenetrable ideas:
“If I have made something of a case in answer to the question at the beginning of this chapter, my main purpose has been less to boast, you my readers may be comforted to learn, than to stress yet further the supreme importance—supreme practical importance—of what you and I are engaged in together as you go through this book.”
I become so weary that I barely bat an eye when Gwynne calls his treatise “the single most important book in print in the English language today…At most, I am only partly joking.” Soon he’s dismissing modern free-verse poetry as “self-indulgently exposing one’s insides.” And aside from loudly proclaiming the value of memorization, he never does explain his so-called unique teaching method.
So where, pray tell, did I find my aforementioned “unexpected delights?” In the reviews, dear reader, in the reviews!
When I finish the book—finally—I search for past reviews and immediately discover an angry yet witty mob who accuse him of being “a preposterous old fraud,” an “insufferable windbag,” and an elitist with “…obvious contempt for anyone (or any country) whose language use doesn’t conform to his precise ideals.”
They describe his book as being full of “supercilious, condensing comments” and “imperious, fustian verbal flatulence,” not to mention hopelessly old-fashioned—possibly relevant “if it had been published in 1750.”
This reviewer is utterly baffled: “Honestly, for a few pages, I thought this was a failed attempt at sarcastic humor; that’s how utterly stuffed his shirt is.”
This one is plainly annoyed: “Reading Gwynne’s Grammar was an unpleasant experience that I do not recommend.”
One dismayed fellow on the UK Amazon site grudgingly gives “2 stars for making me laugh at his occasional outbursts” but glumly adds, “I can’t believe I also bought this guys [sic] latin [sic] book.”
I could only nod in sympathy at this infuriated summary: “In short, I found the book to be pompous, verbose, subjective, pedantic, egotistical, supercilious, judgmental, irrelevant, obnoxious and painful to read.”
Linguist Geoffrey Pullum from the University of Edinburgh wrote a review only after being urged to do so. Explaining his reluctance, he said: “a certain amount of collapse in the will to live had come over me when contemplating the sheer dopiness of Mr Gwynne’s pontifications.”
Lexicographer Michael Rundell is equally blunt, as well as worried: “…while no professional linguist would take any of his ideas seriously – large numbers of ordinary people seem to be taken in by them.” It’s true: Gwynne’s Grammar currently rates 4 stars on the Canadian Amazon site.
But the most satisfying review surely comes from British journalist Oliver Kamm, a columnist for The Times, who describes it as “the worst book I have read on language and perhaps on anything.”
I had no idea book reviewing could be a blood sport.
Lest you think these reviews are unfair or unkind, consider this. According to a feature article in The Telegraph, Gwynne is not, in fact, a grammar expert but “an elderly former businessman who has never been to teacher training college, worn an academic gown or taught in a school.”
These days he teaches with his daughter, who shares his lack of formal training in English; she’s a former naturopath. Yet rather than being humble or self-conscious about their nonexistent qualifications in either grammar or teaching, he is shameless.
“I’m the last teacher left,” he tells the Telegraph journalist. “I go round saying that I am the best teacher in the world, my daughter, Chloe, is the second best and my pupils are the third. It sounds so preposterous but it’s true.”
While it’s tempting to laugh at his pomposity, astute observers point to the not-so-hidden agenda in Gwynne’s work, calling it “an exercise in political propaganda.” His arguments are highly ideological—“If you are a person who thinks that These Darn Kids Today are ruining language, this is the book for you.”
Not surprisingly, some Conservative politicians in the UK are using the book to support their “back-to-basics” educational agendas, bolstered by “a bunch of wealthy…educated middle-aged white men” who—one peeved commenter claims—want to return to “an era where not speaking in their old boys, class-based private school language permanently consigns you to working in McDonalds for the rest of your life.”
Apart from the wonderfully catty reviews, Gwynne’s Grammar did bring me one other unexpected benefit: after reading it, I’m no longer nervous about grammar. After all, I’ve seen the wizard behind the grammarian curtain and he’s nothing but a fusty old fraud.
(Diane Hill is the Director of Communication for the Gender Equality Network Canada, a national network convened and facilitated by the Canadian Women’s Foundation.)
Value for the New Grant Writer
By Joanne Linka (January 29, 2020)
I am generally opposed to titles of books that use hyperbole.
Is this really the only grant-writing book I’ll ever need? How can the authors be sure? The irony of the title is that they mention that funders don’t like hyperbole in grant proposals – “This is the best program you will ever fund that serves everyone in our community and that everyone loves!” – but they have fallen into that trap themselves.
This book is comprehensive (400+ pages) and covers the grant writing process from the inception to the final report with a multitude of tips, definitions and guidelines for success.
For a new grant writer, there is much to be learned in these pages, although there were times I thought it could have been shared much more succinctly (surely 200 pages should be enough). The content is broken down into 18 lessons, with four sections. The authors surveyed a number of funders to ask some roundtable questions (such as how important are the guidelines? and what are their pet peeves?).
The lessons are straightforward and include a quiz at the end—a helpful device to make sure the important points have been learned. The funder roundtable sections were an interesting opportunity to see how funders approach grants from their side of the table.
But the answers were as varied as the funders and therefore really didn’t give a clear or definitive answers. For example, the question was asked whether grant writers can call the funder to ask questions. The answers were yes, no, sometimes and probably not. It depends.
Two chapters offered information that I haven’t seen in other grant writing books.
The first was about intangibles: all those things that are part of the grant writing process that no one ever talks about and covered topics like how to tiptoe through the internal politics of your organization in order to get information from program staff to include in the grant application.
The second reflected how important it is to be up to date on the news and current research so that the grant proposal is timely, relevant and knowledgeable about current issues. The one tip that they didn’t cover and which I always tell people (a hard-won distinction that caused me more than one grey hair) was to make sure the grant writer is aware of the difference between word count and character count. A painful lesson indeed.
Lesson 18 offered content that I haven’t seen in other grant writing books: the idea of using social enterprise as a way to raise funds and leverage grant monies.
When the chapter started off talking about bake sales and mowing lawns, I was skeptical, but eventually it delved into small businesses and the challenges and opportunities that charities will face in a business endeavor. They had some good tips about thinking outside the box and offered a few good examples of charities that have met with success.
Overall, I thought this book had some real value for the new grant writer. And there was the American slant—about 10% of every chapter has content that will not be relevant to Canadian grant writers. They also used the gendered term that they use for the craft of grant writing – grantsmanship.
With those complaints aside, this book has much to offer, including many resources, checklists and grant samples in the appendices, as long as you have the time and patience to read all 400+ pages of it.
(Joanne Linka is Manager of Communication and Fund Development at The Cridge Centre for the Family in Victoria BC – the oldest running charity in Western Canada.)