Desultory Philippic

My general attitude to correct grammar is that whatever sounds right is right. Of course, perhaps this is in itself an issue, because people may not all find the same acts of English misusation discordant; but on the whole I’m inclined to think they largely do – and this is because we mostly learn language and its rules simply by listening to it, and so what we’ve learnt to hear is what sounds right. It may be though that people are brought up in different cultures (classes, regions), and these are the differences we are hearing. On the other hand, I don’t listen to regional English idioms and think instinctively they are wrong. So I have to conclude people who disagree with commonly used English which differs from their own rationalised rules, even though they’re acquainted with these other usages, do so out of prejudice (and largely because they’ve been taught to be prejudiced).

I think this comes back to a subconscious / conscious distinction. When you’re listening to someone speaking and they make a clear grammatical error, it’s your subconscious which picks it up and processes it through to your conscious mind as something of interest to look into. In doing this, the subconscious mind doesn’t have any reference to grammatical rules it has been taught, only to those it’s learned by listening to streams of language. Grammatical rules which have been taught formally are picked up by the conscious mind directly, as it sorts through the sounds it’s hearing, and feels a grievance against some of them – which the subconscious mind, with it’s typical dereliction of duty, wasn’t at all bothered about. This is because the subconscious mind is unconcerned with anything that doesn’t strike it as of importance and has its own opinion about what the conscious mind should really be spending its time on.

As an example of this idea, I choose the curious matter of the pluralisation of pokemon.

It’s a natural grammatical rule of English that you can’t pluralise the word pokemon into either pokemen or pokemons, but would just re-use pokemon. Why? – Because the alternatives just sounds silly: even the normal learned grammatical rule that English pluralises by adding an -s sounds silly. – Nobody needs to refer to a grammar book to implement this irregularity.

There are also equally strange rules for individual pokemon. For instance, there’s a pokemon called meowth, which is rather like a cat. But while you’d say, “I caught 30 cats today” and would never say, “I caught 30 cat today”; you’d also naturally say, “I caught 30 meowth today”, and would never say, “I caught 30 meowths today”. On the other hand, the equivalent to “I saw 30 cats today” would be “I saw 30 meowths today”. – All the time your subconscious mind is making these odd decisions about seemingly irregular pluralisations of words you’ve never encountered, without your conscious mind even having a clue why (or even bothering itself about). (Various explanations I’ve come across: imaginary creatures aren’t pluralised; references to “game” – i.e. in the context of hunting – aren’t pluralised; similar to sheep, fish, deer etc.; recourse to ancient Anglo-Saxon tendencies – but none of these explanations seems to account for everything (aren’t there dragons?)).

Today I was thinking about the use of “Me and X”; and, searching google for correct usage, I found all the advice I’d expect to find: that “Me and X” is correct as an object but wrong as a subject. – But I don’t think it’s true at all.

Take the following 4 statements, and rate them according to which sounds most natural:

  1. Me and Andy went to the park to play football.
  2. Andy and me went to the park to play football.
  3. Andy and I went to the park to play football.
  4. I and Andy went to the park to play football.

Personally, I’d go with the order they’re written in – though there’s not much to choose between 1 and 2, it’s more a question of stress. Version 4 I’d consider to be naturally grammatically incorrect, and would be surprised ever to hear it spoken. (Why? – I don’t really know. Something to do with the natural precedence of two objects, one of which is a pronoun, connected by “and” when they’re the subjects of a sentence. Try changing “I” in 3 and 4 with “you” and “(s)he”. – The natural order shifts).

But why do I believe this, if every grammar tells me the answer is 3? – Because this is how I’ve heard it spoken all my life. I would never say “Andy and I” unless I was forced to (e.g. by a mother). – But equally I wouldn’t consider it wrong.

Strangely, if I change the number of other people in the sentence, I begin to change my order. Consider the following:

  1. Me and seven other people went to the park to play football.
  2. Seven other people and me went to the park to play football.
  3. Seven other people and I went to the park to play football.
  4. I and seven other people went to the park to play football.

Now I still feel quite happy with sentence 1; but the next most plausible actually seems like sentence 4, while 2 and 3 now sound incorrect. (Grammarman of course, I presume, still tells me 3 is right). – But in fact, with a sentence like this, what I might be more inclined to do, rather than any of these, is to change the structure completely, and say:

5. I went to the park to play football with seven other people.

Just as we could have said, for the first sentence, “I went to the park to play football with Andy”.

Who knows? – Perhaps the “me and…” construction is a sort of lost dual form. – But it doesn’t matter what it is: because I don’t need to know why I’m using it at all.

In a similar vein, all this stuff in feeds and bookshops I can’t avoid about Sally Rooney, has led me to flick through some Henry Green. – I find him our finest writer of dialogue, and (reading some of his non-fiction theorising about literature) it was certainly a subject he became more and more obsessed about as his writing life went on.

I quote one passage here from 1950:

There are more than 138 ways she can say, “Will you be long?” Here are some of them:

“Will you be away [or out] long?”

“Will [or shall] you be long gone?”

“Will [or shall] you be gone long?”

“How long will you be?”

“How long will it be before you are back?”

“Will you be back soon?”

“How soon will you be?”

“Back soon?”

“Off for long?”

“Are you going to be back soon?”

“Are you going to be long [or late]?”

“Are you going to be away long [or long away]?”

“Are you going to be gone long?”

“When will you be back?”

“What time [or hour] will you be back?”

Henry Green, A Novelist to his Readers: 1

All of which convey something subtly differ about the context, about the character.

(Raymond Queneau, of course, makes the same point – but he forgets to condense it to half a page).

To me, this insane obsession with variant sentence structure is what literature is all about – and yet, it’s something that’s hardly much mentioned; just as, when people analyse literature, they hardly ever seem bothered to analyse the process of writing – or (aside from a few rhetorical devices) its interest in the nature of languages.

Something about the Booker Prize

People complain again about the number of British and the number of Americans short-listed for the Booker Prize, so the chair of judges, Maya Jasanoff, argues:

I find it pretty remarkable within the 21st century that people are talking about the former British empire as an appropriate container within which to think about literature.

And this does seem reasonable: – but one asks: what has changed?

Certainly the prize used to be defined on a territorial basis, as being open to Britain, the Commonwealth, plus Ireland, South Africa and Zimbabwe (though I don’t think anybody really thought of it as an imperial prize / the point just seemed to be to exclude the Americans). But if it was meant to be the former British empire, why wouldn’t America be included? Weren’t they in fact the only country we were missing, and isn’t the prize now precisely the former countries of the British Empire?

Technically, of course, the United States wasn’t added to the Prize at all: – the prize was merely extended to include all literature written in English. But it is not coincidental that the countries of the world which write in English happen also to be those which used to be part of the British Empire. By specifying “written in English”, the Booker Prize defines itself as the prize of the former British empire.

I am intrigued (but not enough to look it up): has any author been nominated for the Booker Prize who comes from a country outside the former British Empire? – It is theoretically possible now. – But if it happened, it would only demonstrate the continued colonialism of the language.

(Technically writers from Mozambique, which was never part of the British Empire, have been eligible for the Booker Prize since 1995 – and of course, even with the rules changes, continue to be today. The only writer I know from Mozambique is Mia Couto – but for some reason he writes in Portuguese).