I’d like to warn readers that this is not a counter claim to the article ‘Is grammar everything? published in last week’s Hindu’s Open Page. But the piece definitely triggered a few thoughts; I am thankful to Mr Sumit Paul.
To my mind, grammar is the heartbeat of a language. And grammar is the offspring of usage.
English grammar has framed rules, yes, but they are no longer born of the whims and fancies of an individual or a group of individuals (as it was for a long time ‘Latin-grammar-based’) . And it has never remained static; an example or two will suffice. The emergence of ‘they’ as the pronoun for ‘everyone’ is born of a usage that no longer accepts ‘he’, a male pronoun, as representing the common noun that includes women (‘he / she’ was considered as a substitute but found to be awkward when repeated more than once). The word ‘man’ is no longer used as a representative expression; we now use ‘humans’ or ‘human beings’. The choice of ‘Ms’ as a title to address a woman unless she is willing to be addressed as a Miss or Mrs is another example to prove that grammar is not ridden or laden with rigid rules. Passive voice structure with the ‘by +agent’ was taught as a mere substitute structure in yesterday’s grammar but today’s tells you the passive voice structure is a structure in its own right conveying several implications. Thus grammar is not a clutter of ‘dry bones’ but clothes the ‘bones’ with ‘flesh’ and ‘blood’.
An illiterate native speaker of English may not need to know ‘subject’, ‘verb’, or to identify a ‘gerund’ and an ‘infinitive’. But an educated one does need this ‘education’ to help their children with their lessons. More so in the case of learners to whom English is not their own.
Knowing a few jargons is necessary to learn how words and sentences function in communication, and learning them is as useful to non-native users as learning scientific and technical jargon is to scientists and technologists. No one in their senses will accept ‘he did not went home’ even if the speaker was otherwise fluent. Fluency is definitely desirable but it doesn’t follow frequent occurrence of mistakes is acceptable. Taking liberties with language use is definitely admissible on rare occasions. ‘In response Havelock shook his head, waved his hands dismissingly’ writes Arthur Hailey in The Evening News. ‘She had been working in a massive Washington law firm as a labor lawyer, married Morton Traynor, also a labor lawyer, and settled into dulldom’ writes Leon Uris in his A God in Ruins. Poetic licence in prose should be admissible as a tool for brevity and precision in expression.
To term ‘infinitive’ after ‘to’ as the ‘usual and regular’ or ‘much more reasonable’ is a wrong assumption for there are very many verbs and ‘be + adjective + to’s that take a second verb in ‘-ing’ form as a verbal noun [‘gerund’ is the traditional term]. To say English grammar lacks clarity is a mistaken impression because as I said earlier grammar describes how people use their language. Grammar is no longer ‘prescriptive’ but ‘descriptive’.
Fluency indicates learner growth and accuracy, ‘educated’ness.