I’ve recently noticed a strange fascination among younger Chalk the Sun students; it’s not often discussed openly; it’s sometimes ridiculed, held in contempt even, and yet a growing number of bright, twenty and thirty-something people yearn for it. Grammar. Punctuation. Syntax. Esoteric subjects that apparently disappeared from state education along with Home Economics and the cane. Now, despite the constant disparagement, cries of pedantry and assertions that Tweeting, emailing and texting make the rules that govern our language obsolete, irrelevant, downright undemocratic, the generations who were deprived of grammar at school want to fill their leisure hours with it.
Of course, Lynn Truss’s surprise hit with Eats, Shoots and Leaves a few years ago indicated a resurgence of interest but it was Christmas time and maybe everyone thought it was the ideal gift for curmudgeonly old uncles and stuck-up maiden aunts. I first noticed the phenomenon in Chalk classes when I mentioned intransitive verbs. “Yes! Talk grammar to me!” cried the voluptuous Doctor Fiona, in a tone strangely reminiscent of that scene in When Harry Met Sally. David, the young Aussie journo, murmured, “Yeah, let’s have more grammar,” without a hint of irony. Hafiz, the policeman, said, in a low voice, “I’ve heard there’s something called ‘parsing’,” as if it might be some illegal, possibly perverse, activity on the lines of “dogging”.
For the uninitiated, “parsing” is the process by which one analyses sentences, identifying each component word by its grammatical function: subject, verb, adverb, noun, pro-noun, preposition et al plus the case, tense (calm down, Doctor Fi). It’s like doing crosswords or something intellectually satisfying like that: the word equivalent of algebraic mathematical calculations. Though I have since forgotten the exact meaning of the ablative absolute, five years of parsing has left me with a pretty unerring instinct for what is syntactically right or wrong, even if I no longer know why.
No-one under forty-five has been taught grammar. If you study a foreign language you will suddenly be expected to get your brain round datives and gerunds, without ever having been asked to apply them to your mother tongue. I was lucky enough to go to an old fashioned girls’ grammar school (note that name) that aspired to a pre-war Mallory Towers curriculum which included Latin, Greek and lacrosse. By the time I left, the last two subjects had been phased out to be replaced by Media Studies and Spliffing Up Behind the Shed, and, by now, Latin has probably been superseded by parenting classes for the budding babymothers.
Yes, I am revelling in my old fogey, fascistic tendencies, vindicated by the grammatical revival, emboldened by the desires of the young. David (that’s his real name) felt embarrassed in the BBC newsroom because his grammar was poor; Dr.Fi wants to feel confident that her novel won’t be full of errors and inspire cruel finger-pointing ridicule from agents and publishers when she submits it; Hafiz wants to learn the rules so that he can break them in streetwise, vernacular voices in his crime thriller. Grammar, punctuation and syntax empower us as writers. They give us control, imbue our work with subtle layers of meaning, and if you think we don’t need them, that it’s just so much outmoded pickiness, then don’t bother with capital letters either and see what happens to “He helped his Uncle Jack off the horse.” I rest my case.