Filling the gaps

Filling the gaps

Grammar’s not just for pedants

Mine was the generation for which grammar ceased to exist. In the late sixties and early seventies, it was thought to be so dull and boring, such a crippling constraint on our creativity, that we were simply not taught it. Just one or two daring, rebellious teachers managed to sneak in a few sessions on adjectives, nouns and verbs, but that was all. It wasn’t until I started studying foreign languages, when we were taught about sentence structure, subjects, direct objects, indirect objects and all the rest, that I sometimes found myself thinking: “Hang on, that’s like in English when we say…”. And of course it was.

I muddled through, becoming a history student and learning to write essays that sounded good with long sentences and plenty of subordinate clauses, although I rarely knew exactly why certain things sounded right and others sounded wrong. Then I left university and went to train to be a journalist. On my course the perspective was completely different. We weren’t exactly taught grammar – I think our tutor thought that what we hadn’t picked up by then was a lost cause – but we were certainly jumped on when we made a howler. It sharpened my writing no end and it gave me a fairly reliable sense of what was right, although I still often didn’t understand why.

Those “whys” were never answered during a 15-year career in journalism, more than half of it spend in sub-editing and newsdesk jobs which involved correcting others’ mistakes. I don’t think I even realised what I didn’t know. It was only when I moved to Catalonia and started working as an English teacher that I realised where the gaps in my knowledge lay, and I had to fill them quickly. Unlike English people, speakers of Catalan and Spanish demand grammatical rules when learning a foreign language. All I had to answer them with was “That’s correct because it sounds right whereas what you said sounds wrong”. More than once, my students were able to run rings round me.


But if that was the point when I realised the importance of grammar, it’s only recently that I’ve started to enjoy it. This is due in no small part to attending training workshops organised by MET (Mediterranean Editors and Translators). They have been a revelation to me, proving that grammar is actually fun. Nowhere was this more true than at the METM15 conference held a month ago in Coimbra, the source of inspiration for many of my recent blog posts.

First of all, I learned about the English subjunctive with Irwin Temkin. “Subjunctive?” you are probably saying. “I didn’t know English had a subjunctive.” Many people think it hasn’t. Be that as it may (did you see what I did there?), the subjunctive does exist, although it’s often invisible and its imminent demise has been forecast by experts for at least a century. Those who do know of its existence probably know it best from the form “If I were a rich man…” but, as Irwin demonstrated, it doesn’t really matter whether you use “were” (the “correct” form) or “was” (not correct but sometimes sounding less uncomfortably formal), the fact that you are using a verb in the past tense with a present or future meaning means the subjunctive mood is there.

It also turns out that in the United States the subjunctive is not only alive and well, its use is actually increasing. I have to admit I had no idea of this, until Irwin, who is American, started teasing me that, as I’m British he wasn’t surprised I was reluctant to use subjunctives in sentences and write sentences like “It is important that we be vigilant”.

It seems that there are three strategies when faced with this kind of subjunctive construction:

1. Embrace it like an American and use the subjunctive form “be”.

2. Ignore it like a Brit and write “It is important that we are vigilant”.

3. Sidestep the issue with something like “It is important that we should be vigilant”.

I now know that if I’m ever asked for an American English translation, my preferred option should be 1. rather than 2. or 3.


I was delighted with the line taken in the next workshop, also with Irwin, on the use of active and passive verbs (“he made the toast” vs “the toast was made by him”). I’ve long been infuriated with the Microsoft grammar check chiding me to reconsider every time I use a passive verb. It follows a line of dubious grammatical theory that claims passive verbs make for unclear, long-winded, dull writing. But do they? We were shown example of where passive verbs can not only be useful, they can also be clearer and even fom shorter constructions than their active counterparts. As I’d always suspected, the important thing is not which one you use, it’s choosing the right one for the job.

Using active verbs at all costs is an example of the kind of grammar prescriptivism that has a lot to answer for over the years, producing a series of baseless rules that have plagued writers of English for centuries. Anyone who has ever felt the need to twist a sentence round to avoid ending it with a preposition or using a split infinitive will know what I mean. Robert Lowth, Bishop of London in the late 18th century, is often accused of being the originator of such unnecessary nitpicking. But, as grammar expert John Bates showed in an interesting talk, history is rarely so straightforward. He made a convincing case for Lowth’s innocence and shifted the blame to some of his 19th-century followers, who took Lowth’s suggestions and recommendations and hardened them into rigid rules. Why anyone would want to do this seems hard to fathom, but it turns out that in the 19th century grammar was big business. Grammar books sold well and upwardly mobile readers keen to avoid being shown up by mistakes preferred firm instructions on what they should and shouldn’t be doing with language, much in the same way as people learning English as a foreign language do today. A fascinating piece of social history which also, rather disconcertingly, seems to indicate that the instinctive “muddling through” approach to grammar I grew up with may not be such a bad thing after all.



  1. Hello Simon, good point about the US-UK difference on the subjunctive; I’ll bear that one in mind.
    Although I was taught grammar, that was back in the mid-80s, and much of it had faded from the brain by the time I started translating. To put things right, inspired partly by Chris Durban’s insistence on the importance of target language writing in the translation product, I had a bit of a grammar and usage binge three or four years ago, and that’s set me in good stead.
    Listening to experts like Irwin (although I missed his sessions this time) and John is a joy, as you also get the perspective of the historical background, which (to be honest) I’m less likely to spend time exploring in my everyday CPD and research.
    Like the Iberians, the Italians know their grammatical onions, too, so having a firm grounding can probably help us to justify our choices to clients, when necessary. I remember an article in the ITI Bulletin not long ago that made quite a case for translators’ using formal linguistic concepts and terms to impress agencies and convince them of our specific decisions in translation, although I think that’s probably going a bit far.


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