I’ve seen a lot of people criticise ‘Gwynne’s Grammar’ by NM Gwynne. According to Geoffrey Pullum, Gwynne is a “preposterous old fraud” whose “pontifications” show a “lack of any grasp of the subject”. Michael Rundell thinks the book promotes “snobbish prejudices and silly made-up rules”. Barrie England finds Gwynne “crazed” and “deaf to how the language is used and insensitive to the variations of which it is capable”. Oliver Kamm says that the book is a “dispiriting” work of “unremitting silliness”, full of “arbitrary rules that stultify prose and are a parody of learning” and driven by “not merely fanaticism but an ignorance of how language works”.
On the other hand, Prince Charles says the book is “outstandingly useful”.
I would tend to side with the critics – especially given Gwynne’s ill-fated grammar test earlier this year – except that I have achieved an insight they lack.
The clue is in the name.
‘Gwynne’s Grammar’ is a deft piece of wordplay. It appears to announce that this is a book by Gwynne about grammar, but of course the author’s name appears on the cover too. A careless reader might therefore deem this redundancy or even vanity, but the truth is more subtle.
The title ‘Gwynne’s Grammar’ conceals a deeper meaning: that the book is about the grammar of Gwynne’s own language, a distinctive idiolect of formal standard English known as Gwynglish. It follows many of the rules of English, but rejects some and adds others; the result is a grammar unique to Gwynne.
One endearing idiosyncrasy of Gywnglish is that the Gwynglish word for ‘Gwynglish’ is ‘English’. A lazy failure to appreciate this rather simple point led the other reviewers to mistakenly damn Gwynne for a bone-headed, evidence-free procrustean prescriptivism.
I haven’t actually read most of the book, as its first chapter is all I need to judge its extraordinary quality. So I’m only going to review that chapter. And, as it’s only seven sentences long and is available free in the Amazon preview, I don’t think I’m taking a liberty in reproducing it in full. It contains a wealth of information about Gwynglish, so let’s take it one sentence at a time:
(1) Let no one be deceived into thinking that learning grammar is a luxury of relatively little importance, on the basis of such specious reasoning as: most people today manage to communicate effectively without having ever studied it formally.
This alerts us to another difference of vocabulary. In English, “most people today manage to communicate effectively without having ever studied it formally” would count as a reason, not a piece of reasoning; not so in Gwynglish.
(2) Learning even one’s own language without systematically learning its grammar is far slower and less efficient than otherwise.
Here we discover a fascinating fact about the learning of Gwynglish. I agree that children should be taught about the parts of speech, but they will only understand such explanations if they already have a decent implicit grasp of the differences between nouns, verbs and so on. In English, it isn’t “slower” to do it this way round; it’s essential. But not so when learning Gwynglish.
(3) And anyway, even the most intelligent people seldom do get a completely accurate grasp of English from a grammarless education, and can all too easily make elementary mistakes – such as ‘Between you and I’ and the politically correct illiteracy ‘Anyone in doubt should ask their teacher’ – that would never have been made at any level of society fifty or sixty years ago.
We get on to some rules of grammar now. The sentence begins by showing us that, in Gwynglish as in English, it’s perfectly acceptable to start a sentence with “And”. A proscription against this is enforced by some teachers and other ill-informed eccentrics but ignored or rejected by almost everyone else, including the greatest writers throughout history. It’s good to see that Gwynglish is not governed by arbitrary usage peeves.
Then we are told of two “elementary mistakes” in Gwynglish grammar: “between you and I” and singular “their”. Personally, I dislike the former and have no problem with the latter, but my preferences don’t determine English grammar. Gwynne, of course, is in a much more authoritative position with respect to Gwynglish.
In English, as it happens, “Between you and I” certainly was in common (albeit minority) use 50 or 60 years ago. In books, it has been about 4–12% as common as “between you and me” since the 1850s, bobbing up and down with no long-term trend. Whether I like it or not, its users include Shakespeare, Samuel Pepys and Daniel Defoe.
And the sex-neutral singular “they” is in English much older than the modern “political correctness” movement. The OED records this use of “they” and “their” (with the caveat that it “has sometimes been considered erroneous”) going back centuries. Its users include George Bernard Shaw, Walter Bagehot, WM Thackeray, Thomas More and even Middle English precursors such as Wycliffe’s Bible of 1382.
But I digress. Perhaps these usages have since the 1960s crept from English into Gwynglish, where they unarguably are erroneous.
(4) It is as well to emphasise that effortless knowledge of these elementary basics of grammar is indispensable for accurate English, Latin and Greek, and any other European language.
This line reveals two more curiosities. First, the phrase “elementary basics” would in English be a pleonasm; and, as an admirer of William Strunk, Gwynne would no doubt have sought to omit needless words. This, therefore, means that either “elementary” or “basics” means something different in Gwynglish, although it is beyond my wit to discover which, and what.
Then we have the statement that the explicit knowledge of grammar he urges is “indispensable” for one’s ability to use language accurately, whereas back in the previous sentence he had only said that a grammarless education “seldom” results in accurate language. This is a puzzle: in English, this would seem to be the dishonest but clumsy rhetorical trick of adding an initial caveat to sound reasonable and win the reader’s trust only to later assert an absolutist position as if it were what had already been established. But I cannot credit such a hypothesis; surely “indispensable” must have a different meaning in Gwynglish.
(5) In what follows, at least the definitions in bold print should be learnt exactly by heart, including even their word order.
To interpret this sentence, we must skip ahead in the book and find such an definition. The first I could see in the Amazon preview was this:
A sentence is most comprehensively defined as: a word or group of words expressing a complete statement, wish, command or question, whether as a thought, or in speech, or in writing.
Skating over the fact that in Gwynglish, an exclamation cannot be a sentence, we can infer two remarkable things about Gwynglish syntax and semantics. Because if one needs to learn this definition verbatim, it follows that changing it in any way would distort the meaning. This means that there are no synonyms in Gwynglish (so “group” could not be changed to “set”, “series” or “collection”) and that the order of terms in lists is unalterable (so “statement, wish, command or question” is different from “statement, question, command or wish”).
The intricacies of this are beyond me, and doubtless some other part of the book explains this in more depth.
(6) All the other definitions and explanations should at least be thoroughly understood, and learners should be able easily to think up sentences of their own which give examples of any of the defined terms.
This shows us another supposed rule that doesn’t apply to Gwynglish: Gwynne begins a restrictive clause with “which” rather than “that”, despite the condemnation of many commentators (such as HW Fowler and Strunk and White). This reminds us again that Gwynglish is mercifully free of the prescriptive pseudo-rules that, in English, intimidate the unwary and boost the egos of the closed-minded.
In the same sentence, he also takes care to avoid splitting an infinitive, even though there are verb phrases sitting either side of the adverb. In Gwynglish, it is a firm grammatical principle that infinitives should be unsplit (although in English this is just a prescriptive pseudo-rule that intimidates the unwary and boosts the egos of the closed-minded).
(7) The other use of bold print is to indicate the first time any important term is used in any discussion of it, to make it easier to find it whenever you need to.
The final sentence is noteworthy for the contrast with its predecessors. It calls the reader “you”, while sentence (6) uses the third person. I might have said that this apparent inconsistency falls under the category of style rather than grammar, but many things that are legitimate stylistic choices or contingent usage conventions in English are immutable matters of grammar in Gwynglish. I can only presume, therefore, that six is the correct number of sentences needed in Gwynglish to establish sufficient rapport with the reader to switch into the second person.
Such a tantalising glimpse into such a fascinating language! I have no hesitation in saying that if ever you need to communicate with Gwynne, this is the book for you.