*An Activist Classroom book review.
My job as a university scholar means I have to wear a lot of different hats on any given day – teacher, researcher, writer, administrator, good citizen of my discipline (theatre and performance studies), and, often, editor. Editing is one of the ways I regularly practice collaborative scholarship, and it’s one of the aspects of my job that gives me the most joy (more on that in a future post). Recently, I finished a three-year gig as the Book Review Editor for Theatre Survey, an academic journal linked to the American Society for Theatre Research (ASTR). That means I now no longer routinely panic, like clockwork, three times a year when issues are due at press; it also means I now get to go back to doing book reviews of my own, a task I quite enjoy.
To celebrate my return to the world of “ordinary” reviewers, I’d like to spend some time in this space reflecting on a terrific book I’ve just finished reading both for work and for pleasure.
Harry Ritchie’s English for the Natives: Discover the Grammar You Don’t Know You Know (John Murray, 2013) is one of the best “crossover” titles I’ve read in a long time. It is written engagingly and accessibly; it includes a fun, interest-holding combination of language history, social commentary, and helpful grammar reference; and its voice is personal, charming, and at times comic-relief-y enough that I’ve laughed out loud while reading it on public transport at least twice. (Imagine the sight of the woman seated across from you on the subway giggling from behind a book that features the words “English” and “grammar” prominently on its cover, and you’ll see what I mean.)
Who, you’re wondering, reads a grammar book on the subway? OK: so I’ve been reading this title both on the Tube and in bed partly because I’m an English teacher by training and a bit of a language geek, but also because it’s the kind of book that makes matters of style, syntax, and linguistic history seem not only absorbing but also totally relevant to my world right now. I do not think of myself as a language snob, but I DO care a lot about good writing, which includes good and clear sentence structure and effective syntax. Why? Because I believe that being able to write fluidly and effectively means being able to communicate precisely and emphatically, and for me good and clear communication is intimately linked to being able to have both a happy life and a politically engaged one.
I also, however, care about the politics of what we consider to be “good” or “proper” writing. That is, I’m interested in questions like: who decides what’s “correct” grammar, and what’s not? Why shouldn’t we split infinitives – who made that rule up, and why? (Ritchie will tell you, btw.) What grammar rules are connected to clarity, to ensuring that we all understand quickly and easily the point a writer is trying to make so that we can engage that writer in real debate? On the flip side, which grammar rules are arbitrary, and which ones are even motivated by social and racial snobbery? How might we put pressure on those rules to dissolve or change?
These are the kinds of questions Ritchie’s book takes up: in every chapter, from his opening discussion of the roots of English (ever heard of Proto-Indo-European? Neither had I, but I’m totally fascinated by it), to his later, longer, and pretty thorough chapter on English verbs (which made my head hurt occasionally, I’ll admit), Ritchie is consistently interested in thinking about the politics behind the rules and regulations he details. Here he is, for example, in his section on the conditional verb tense, discussing the question tag “innit?”, used primarily in non-standard dialects in urban south England:
It has elegance, ease and simplicity on its side, even simpler than French’s ‘n’est-ce pas’, and it seems to me to be a hugely appealing construction, but ‘innit?’ has been predictably lambasted as a sign of the decline of our once noble language/moral standards/western civilisation. Why the hostility? Because it’s a new form introduced by people who are non-white, working class and young. No other reason. It’s a prime example of a supposedly linguistic judgement being based entirely, entirely, on social prejudice. (174)
This terrific example of Ritchie’s thoughtful and straightforwardly sensible language politics illustrates quite clearly my favourite thing about English for the Natives: the way in which it insists, in its title on down, that all of us who speak English as a first language are experts in that language. In Ritchie’s appealing linguistic universe, we do not make mistakes and thus reveal ourselves inexpert, inept, or “unwashed”; our so-called “mistakes” are in fact the idiomatic practices of expert users operating in one or more dialects of a constantly-evolving language.
To put this more bluntly: when David Cameron speaks in the House of Commons in his idiomatic “old Etonian”, he only sounds like the country’s most expert language user. In fact, he just happens to be pretty darn expert in his particular idiom (and very good at performing it, in a slightly smarmy sort of way, as especially “correct”). When the late Bob Crow, former RMT Union General Secretary, spoke in his own, supposedly less sophisticated dialect, he was in fact demonstrating mastery of his own English – and arguably doing so for reasons no less political than David Cameron’s when the latter ups the Etonian ante in front of the House during PM’s questions. Neither of these men, Ritchie would argue, should figure as intellectually superior or inferior simply because one sounds “cultured” and the other sounds “Cockney”; that figuration is a social myth that powerful vested interests in the UK establishment class have encouraged for their own benefit for generations. But that’s all it is: a myth.
This does not, of course, mean that Ritchie encourages a grammatical free-for-all where once we were all tethered to The Rules; the bulk of the book is after all a really useful primer for anyone who would like to know more about English grammar, its history and its current practices. What’s exciting about the primer bits, though, is that they don’t simply focus on “correct” usage; Ritchie tells readers what “standard” English dialect says is the rule, and then he explores its variants in a number of non-standard forms, including rural and urban dialects from all over Britain (and some American, too). He thus gives the language traits of Bob Crow, of inner-city Glaswegian immigrants, and of your Cornish grandmother the status of the Queen’s (and David Cameron’s) fussy English, and he spends time, effort, and generosity of spirit on detailing the (sometimes complicated, sometimes blissfully not) rules that adhere to those dialects, in all of their own internal precision and correctness.
English for the Natives is a book that insists the messy and multiplicitous English language can be a site for both social politics and egalitarian practice, if we can just get over the hurdle of taking non-standard English “seriously” – which Ritchie does convincingly well. It’s also a book that has enormous sympathy for EFL (English-as-a-foreign-language) readers and learners, noting for “native” readers the many places where EFL speakers are likely to get hung up on what comes “naturally” to natives, and why. Learning how utterly foolish, yet totally natural-sounding, rules around the Gerund are was eye-opening to me: of course the people I meet in the course of my life who hail from Poland, or Pakistan, or Paraguay make these errors, and here’s precisely the reason the language trips them up. Ritchie encourages us to put ourselves in these learners’ shoes, to puzzle out the language as they do during the process of learning English, and to work out exactly where they go wrong – because of course we would do so too, if we hadn’t all been so fortunate as to be born native English “experts”. Humbling stuff, even for a teacher-geek like me.
In a country where “strivers” are imagined to speak like David Cameron (and deserve public subsidies for their large London mortgages to boot) while “skivers” are presumed to sound like Bob Crow (who was once chastised for behaviour far less corrupt than that of his Conservative political colleagues), and where immigrants from Romania are made into paper devils by the aw-shucks UKip leader Nigel Farage as he plays on the fears of voters who can’t understand why people new to Britain don’t just learn English already, Ritchie’s book isn’t just a light linguistic history, and it’s not just a great grammar primer. It’s a political book about the way we communicate in multicultural England, about who gate-keeps our language, and about what that gate-keeping has to do with the respect we each accord, or fail to accord, one another in the public sphere.
Plus, it includes the hilarious example: “The conman kissed the aardvark” (149, simple past tense… and plenty more where that came from).
All in all, a book I’d strongly encourage all y’all to read – and then pass on to the person sitting next to you on the bus.