Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Know What I Mean?

I was at school during the 1960s and 70s, an era of education that held that such formalities as grammar were restrictive when it came to creativity. I am therefore of a generation who can express myself freely but that no one can understand because we never learnt about punctuation, syntax, conjugation, adjectival modification or even spelling. As a result I've spent years struggling to get the ideas in my head down on to paper in a way that other people can understand.

I mention this because a number of you obviously share my mystification regarding formal grammar since I've had a number of comments and emails regarding Matty's homework assignment conjugating regular and irregular verbs. The reality, for most of us who learnt English in childhood, is that we do such things without thinking, thank God. It's rare for most of us to get confused about regular and irregular verbs. When was the last time you forgot that the past tense of the regular verb 'walk` is 'walked`, or that the past tense of the irregular verb 'swim' is 'swam`?

The English language is the most amazing tool for communicating great subtlety of meaning and is the only language that requires books of synonyms such as Roget's Thesaurus. It is also a language easy to get confused over. As Bill Bryson points out -

English is full of booby traps for the unwary foreigner. Any language where the unassuming word fly signifies an annoying insect, a means of travel, and a critical part of a gentleman's apparel is clearly asking to be mangled.

It's a wonder any of us manage to master it to some extent or another. Knowing a bit of basic grammar can only help. Which reminds me of a favourite joke.

Teacher: Tell me two pro nouns.
Child: Who? Me?