Grammar Rules - Or Does It?

14/08/2014 16:51 | Updated 22 May 2015

Grammar rules - or does it?

My five-year-old daughter looks up at me with an adorable smile. "Mummy," she says, "me and Evie love you more than anything in the whole world." I shake my head and hold up an admonishing finger. "Evie and I," I correct, and wait for her to repeat it.

The way people speak is hugely important to me. Language habits are formed from birth, and I want to give my children the best possible start in life, so I don't let them make a single mistake.

If they get something wrong I gently point out their error, and make sure they have it right before we continue. Sometimes, I have to admit, this takes so long they forget what they were going to say...

My constant corrections horrify my best friend, Merilyn, who thinks I need to cut the kids some slack. "It's just not necessary," she says. Merilyn makes the occasional correction, if she feels she has to, but otherwise she lets her three children speak English however they choose.

"I pick the kids up on some things," she says, "such as dropped 'h's, but I firmly believe that language exists only to communicate ideas. If my children are getting their message across effectively, then I don't care what their grammar's like. It simply doesn't matter."

Lindsey Watson, from the newly launched pregnancy service Project-B, agrees wholeheartedly with Merilyn. Her six-year-old daughter, Chloe, is passionate about reading, and always has her head in a book. Lindsey feels this exposure to literature is enough to ensure that grammar rules will become second nature to her daughter, without the need for parental intervention.

"I really want Chloe to be a good story-teller," Lindsey says, "and I worry that constant correction from me will demotivate her. I don't want her to feel I'm more interested in grammar than what she is actually trying to tell me."

I can see Lindsey's point, but surely your message will always be more effective – your stories more colourful and better expressed – if the structure in which they are housed is properly built?

A well-written sentence doesn't have to be read twice; a well-spoken child won't be misunderstood when he stands before the class for show and tell. I don't see that my constant grammar corrections are any worse than reminders to say please and thank you, or not to talk with your mouth full.

Good manners and good grammar go a long way in this world.

I'm not the only one to wince at a misplaced preposition: mother-of-two Deborah is a proof-reader and editor, and she simply can't stop herself from pointing out other people's mistakes. "It's my trade," she explains, "so obviously I'm going to be extra-sensitive about it."

Deborah doesn't just correct her children: her husband and friends are regularly put in their place too. "My correction of 'less' and 'fewer' has become a standing joke amongst my friends," she says, "I think they'd be disappointed if I didn't point out their mistakes."

Deborah regularly corrects her sons' speech. "Grammar is fundamental to our language," she says, "and if children get it right from the outset they will never have to think about it again. Once you've grasped the rules, you can break them, but you have to learn them first."

Someone who knows all about grammar rules is Simon Horobin, author of Does Spelling Matter?, published by Oxford University Press. I asked Simon for a spot of back-up on my zealous teaching methods, but he was surprisingly laid-back about it all.

"It is certainly true that a sound grasp of standard written English is important for passing exams and getting into good universities," he concedes. "However it's important to recognise that all speakers of English make grammatical errors in real-time conversation which they would not make in writing."

So does that mean I should allow my children the occasional slip? Surprisingly, Simon thinks I should. He puts my obsession with grammar down to my upbringing. "Many of the prescriptions traditionally associated with the idea of correct grammar are stylistic conventions and not grammatical rules," he says.

He gives examples such as split infinitives (to boldly go), or ending sentences with a preposition. Simon's theory is that parents who were themselves taught that such rules are sacred find it difficult to accept that conventions are changing. "They are outrages," Simon says, "which they will not put up with; or, as they would prefer, up with which they will not put."

I guess me and my husband (look what I did there) will have to relax a bit when it comes to grammar, and let the children find their own way through language, just as they will through life.

What do you think? Does grammar matter?

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