4. Rules and Rubbish

On a recent visit to England, I picked up a test yourself book in a second-hand bookshop: “How good is your English? by a  certain Cedric Astle BA [Hons]  who, ‘as a former secondary school headmaster and teacher of English … is supremely well-qualified to write this book’.

I looked at some of the questions, and groaned. Old-fashioned prescriptive grammar at its worst. Some of the information given was pretty outdated when I was at school in the 1950s and 60s, and I was horrified to discover that this book was written in 1979 and reprinted in 1988 (or  MCMLXXIX and MCMLXXXVIII, as the publisher so unhelpfully expressed the years).

Here are some examples of what was being passed off as ‘good grammar’ only 23 years ago – and probably still is today (I have added my comments in italics):

Can you say what is wrong with these sentences?

Q. Can you imagine him forgetting a date like that?

A.  him× his√. The possessive case should be used for a pronoun followed by a gerund.

Apart from the fact that  nouns in English don’t have ‘cases’, insistence on the possessive form in such constructions is simply pedantry. The Fowlers claimed in ‘The King’s English’ (1906) that failure to use a possessive form was “grammatically indefensible”, but used Latin grammar to support their claim. They also produced many examples  of what they considered to be incorrect usage taken from serious newspapers and respected writers, which suggests that even a century ago the Fowlers’ views were not universally accepted.  Indeed in ‘An Advanced English Syntax’ published two years earlier, , CT Onions argued that there was “nothing illogical or inconsistent” in the use of the non-possessive form. In the Tracts of the Society for  Pure English between 1925 and 1927,  H W Fowler argued his point with Jespersen, who forcefully defended the construction so disliked by Fowler.

More recent authorities including such luninaries as Eric Patridge (1947),  Sir Ernest Gowers (1954) and R W Burchfield (1996), have discussed the topic. While some feel that there are good reasons for retaining the use of the possessive, none claim that not using it is incorrect.

Q. Can I drive you home?

A. Can× may√.Confusion of two verbs results in an impropriety frequently encountered and generally condoned. It should be remembered, however, that ‘can’ refers to capacity or ability to do something; ‘may to permission or sanction.

The plain fact is that for a majority of native speakers of English ‘can’ now can refer to permission or sanction; to such speakers ‘may’ can sound pretentious.

Q. They didn’t use to allow such goings-on here.

A. didn’t use×  used not√. Inelegant form of verb used, though the expression (didn’t use) is frequently used by inelegant speakers.

Inelegant speakers must make up over 90% of the population, then.  ‘used not’ sounds odd these days to most people.

Q. If I was wrong, I’d be the first to admit it.

A. was×  were√. Subjunctive mood required when conjunction ‘if’ introduces a supposition.

I use ‘were’ myself for hypothetical utterances – but I am aware that I am now in the minority of native speakers to do so.The subjunctive has been dying for a long time and, for most speakers, it is now dead.

Q. I will never be out of debt.

A. will×  shall√.  The two verbs, ‘I will’  (indicating determination) and ‘I shall’ (futurity), are often confused, sometimes with amusing results (e.g. the well-known sentence: I will drown and nobody shall save me!’ attributed to a foreign student, out of his debt in both the river and his English grammar.)

I have ranted about shall/will in other posts on this blog, so I’ll just repeat here: Only a small minority of southern British speakers of English ever followed the shall/will rule. Most native speakers do not use ‘shall’ for futurity.

Q. Due to the postal strike, I did not receive your letter in time.

A. Due×  owing√. The word ‘due’ which is adjectival in function, should be logically related toits noun or pronoun.

Says who? Cedric Astle BA [Hons]! As Burchfield points out, “Hostility to the construction (‘due to’ used as a prepositional phrase in verbless clauses) is an entirely 20th century phenomenom. Opinion remains sharply divided, but it looks as if this use of ‘due to’ will form part of the natural language of the 21st century as one more example of a forgotten battle.”

Some of my TEFL trainees who were taught by such supremely well-qualified teachers as Cedric Astle BA [Hons] have accused me of lowering standards by teaching my students grossly incorrect grammar. My response is simply that my tolerance of constructions they and prescriptive grammarians so dislike is simply a recognition that most serious gramarians describe the language as it is, not as they think it should be. If many moderately well educated speakers us a construction or word normally and naturally, then it is not grossly ( or even slightly) incorrect. The fact that it might not have been considered correct fifty years ago is not relevant today.

The language that we speak now has evolved and changed constantly since it first appeared as a language distinct from the Germanic languages in which lay its roots. And, since at least the sixteenth century, there have always been writers who deplore the ‘lowering of standards’ and wish to freeze it in some way at the state it was in during their teachers’ youth. However, he language of  Anthony Burgess is no ‘worse’ (or ‘better’) than that of Jane Austen; hers no worse than Shakespeare’s; his no worse than Chaucer’s. Language changes.

It is true that the language of serious writers tends to be more formal in construction, uses richer vocabulary, and retains older constructions than the language of most speakers in everyday life. But it is the language of most speakers in everyday life that most foreigners wish to learn. ‘To whom were you talking as you came in’ is not natural spoken English; ‘Who were you talking to as you came in’ is.

Whether we like it or not, many forms once deplored by certain authorities (Split infinitives, prepositions at the end of sentences, ‘I will’ to express futurity, ‘can I?’ to ask permission, ‘hopefully’ as a sentence adverb meaning ‘it is to be hoped’ ….) are now part of our modern language. Accepting them is no more a lowering of standards than preferring a car to a pony and trap.


Astle, Ceedric, (1979), How good is your English, Kingswood: Elliot Right Way Books

Burchfield, R W (ed), (1996), The New Fowler’s Moden English Usage, Oxford: OUP

Fowler, H W & F G, (1906) The King’s English, Oxford: Clarendon Press

Fowler, H W, (1925), “Italic, Fused Participles, &c.”, Society for Pure English Tract 22. Oxford: Clarendon Press,

Fowler, H W, (1927), “Ing“, Society for Pure English Tract 26. Oxford: Clarendon Press

Onions, C T, (1904)  An Advanced English Syntax, London: Swan Sonnenschein

Gowers, Sir Ernest, (1986) The Complete Plain Words (3rd edn), London: HMSO

Jespersen, Otti, (1926), On some disputed points in English Grammar, Society for Pure English Tract 25. Oxford: Clarendon Press

Partridge, Eric (1947), Usage and Abusage, London: Hamish Hamilton


ps: Don’t forget to visit my new website at www.gramorak.com. It already has a few articles on the English Verb, with more in the pipeline.

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