What Is And Ain’t Grammatical
I cannot overemphasize the importance of good grammar.
What a crock. I could easily overemphasize the importance of good grammar. For example, I could say: “Bad grammar is the leading cause of slow, painful death in North America,” or “Without good grammar, the United States would have lost World War II.”
The truth is that grammar is not the most important thing in the world. The Super Bowl is the most important thing in the world. But grammar is still important. For example, suppose you are being interviewed for a job as an airplane pilot, and your prospective employer asks you if you have any experience, and you answer: “Well, I ain’t never actually flied no actual airplanes or nothing, but I got several pilot-style hats and several friends who I like to talk about airplanes with.”
If you answer this way, the prospective employer will immediately realize that you have ended your sentence with a preposition. (What you should have said, of course, is “several friends with who I like to talk about airplanes.”) So you will not get the job, because airline pilots have to use good grammar when they get on the intercom and explain to the passengers that, because of high winds, the plane is going to take off several hours late and land in Pierre, South Dakota, instead of Los Angeles.
We did not always have grammar. In medieval England, people said whatever they wanted, without regard to rules, and as a result they sounded like morons. Take the poet Geoffrey Chaucer, who Couldn’t even spell his first name right. He wrote a large poem called Canterbury Tales, in which people from various professions—knight, monk, miller, weever, riveter, steeler, diver, stevedore, spinnaker, etc.—and on and on and on like this:
In a somer sesun whon softe was the sunne
I kylled a youn e birde ande I ate it on a bun
When Chaucer’s poem was published, everybody read it and said: “My God, we need some grammar around here.” So they formed a Grammar Commission, which developed the parts of speech, the main ones being nouns, verbs, predicants, conjectures, particles, proverbs, adjoiners, coordinates, and rebuttals. Then the commission made up hundreds and hundreds of grammar rules, all of which were strictly enforced.
When the colonists came to America, they rebelled against British grammar. They openly used words like “ain’t” and “finalize,” and when they wrote the Declaration of Independence they deliberately misspelled many words. Thanks to their courage, today we Americans have only two rules of grammar:
Rule 1. The word “I’me” is always incorrect.
Most of us learn this rule as children, from our mothers. We say things like: “Mom, can Bobby and me roll the camping trailer over Mrs. Johnson’s cat?” And our mothers say: “Remember your grammar, dear. You mean: ‘Can Bobby and I roll the camping trailer over Mrs. Johnson’s cat?’ Of course you can, but be home by dinnertime.”
The only exception to this rule is in formal business writing, where instead of “I” you must use “the undersigned.” For example, this business letter is incorrect:
“Dear Hunky-Dory Canned Fruit Company:
A couple days ago my wife bought a can of your cling peaches and served them to my mother who has a weak heart and she damn near died when she bit into a live grub. If I ever find out where you live, I am gonna whomp you on the head with a ax handle.”
This should be corrected as follows:
“If the undersigned ever finds out where you live, the undersigned is gonna whomp you on the head with a ax handle.”
Rule 2. You’re not allowed to split infinitives.
An infinitive is the word “to” and whatever comes right behind it, such as “to a tee,” “to the best of my ability” ... “tomato,” etc. Splitting an infinitive is putting something between the “to” and the other words. For example, this is incorrect:
“Hey man, you got any, you know, spare change you could give to, like, me?”
The correct version is:
spare change you could, like, give to me?”
The advantage of American English is that, because there are so few rules, practically anybody can learn to speak it in just a few minutes. The disadvantage is that Americans generally sound like jerks, whereas the British sound really smart, especially to Americans. That’s why Americans are so fond of those British dramas they’re always showing on public television, the ones introduced by Alistair Cooke. Americans love people who talk like Alistair Cooke. He could introduce old episodes of
“Hawaii Five-O” and Americans would think they were extremely enlightening.
So the trick is to use American grammar, which is simple, but talk with a British accent, which is impressive. This technique is taught at all your really snotty private schools, where the kids learn to sound like Elliot Richardson. Remember Elliot? He sounded extremely British, and as a result he got to be Attorney General, Secretary of State, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and Vice President at the same time.
You can do it, too. Practice in your home, then approach someone on the street and say: “Tally-ho, old chap. I would consider it a great honour if you would favour me with some spare change.” You’re bound to get quick results.