Modern standards of grammar do not make you kill yourself

Last night I went to Kings Place to see David Marsh and Nevile Gwynne debate grammar. They both spoke with a certain dry wit, even if they both lost focus at times. I’d read a fair bit of their stuff before, so I didn’t find the evening hugely informative, but it was interesting in any case.

Here I’ll just look at one thing Gwynne said.

He is firmly of the view that everything went wrong in the 1960s, when the teaching of grammar was abolished. This had catastrophic consequences for our language. “When I was eight or nine, everyone knew what a preposition was.” But no longer.

A regular part of his pitch is that good grammar (by his definition) is necessary for thinking, and thinking is necessary for deciding, and deciding is necessary for happiness and society and civilisation itself, all of which are now breaking down because we split our infinitives and don’t know what the genitive case is. And he is very fond of preposterous overgeneralisations and of rose-tinted glasses.

So perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised when he said it. But I was. And so, from the sound of it, were most of the rest of the audience.

When I was young there was no such thing as suicide.

Yes. Really.

I didn’t get his next line down entirely, what with the sound of gobs being smacked, but he said the modern explosion of suicide was due to people “not thinking coherently” – a tragic result of their using ‘hopefully’ as a sentence adverb and saying ‘different to’ and such other brain-destroying, life-ruining horrors.

I knew he was exaggerating. But what I didn’t know was that he was completely, utterly wrong.

When I got home, it took me about five minutes to find a 2010 paper in the International Journal of Epidemiology called ‘Suicide in England and Wales 1861–2007: a time-trends analysis’, by Kyla Thomas and David Gunnell. The facts are these:

Suicide rates in males steadily increased by 67% from 1861 to reach a peak of 30.3 per 100 000 by 1905. Rates then decreased to 21 per 100 000 in 1917 (during World War I), increasing to reach a second peak of 30.3 per 100 000 in 1934, coinciding with the Great Depression. Subsequent declines were interrupted by small increases in the 1950s and 1980s. The lowest male suicide rate (11.6 per 100 000) was recorded in 2007. In contrast, suicide rates in females increased gradually from 6.0 per 100 000 in 1861, peaking at 11.8 deaths per 100 000 in 1964, with slight declines during the two world wars. The rates steadily declined in subsequent years and the lowest female rate (3.2 per 100 000) was seen in 2007.

Modern grammar teaching coincides with the lowest suicide rates on record.

My objection to Gwynne is not that he is conservative or uncompromising or authoritarian. My objection is that he is ignorant, incompetent and lazy. He literally doesn’t know what he’s talking about. I’ve blogged about him a few times before, and every time I come across him he’s a little bit more wrong.

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Comments

  • Marianthi  On February 18, 2014 at 9:18 am

    Thanks for this. I think my brain just stopped functioning when Gwynne said that. It would have been good to see a real debate but it seems Gwynne is content being a comic/outrageous figure rather than someone with an argument that is worth defending.

  • Adrian McMenamin  On February 18, 2014 at 12:04 pm

    Reblogged this on cartesian product and commented:
    The great Neville Gwynne make it up as you go along road show rumbles on…

  • nigelgrant  On February 19, 2014 at 5:38 am

    I wanted to be at the Gwynne/Marsh debate, but am in South Africa at the moment. The suicide comment is entirely in line with the wrongheaded, prissy smugness Gwynne displayed when he contributed to Radio 4’s Saturday Live last April. What was really odd was that the very clever Richard Coles let him twaddle on, without challenge or question. Geoffrey Pullum has made some pretty unflattering comments about Gwynne; I think “outrageous old fraud” is one. But still he gets plenty of publicity. Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots and Leaves was flawed enough to be going on with, but Gwynne is in his own league for disparaging, tut-tut pseudo-grammar. I’ve twice asked Saturday Live for a chance to present the other side, but have had no reply.

  • Peter Harvey  On February 20, 2014 at 12:11 pm

    I have mentioned this post on my own blog:
    http://lavengro.typepad.com/peter_harvey_linguist/2014/02/gwynne-suicide-and-language.html
    Having no other means of contacting you, may I take this opportunity of asking you to add Lavengro to your Blogroll?

  • Barrie  On February 20, 2014 at 12:53 pm

    Reblogged this on Caxton.

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