Grammar may be all Greek to you, but must we go all Bonzo on it



Grammar may be all Greek to you, but must we go all Bonzo on it

A column to satisfy your inner grammar nerd

Deputy features editor: Sunday Times

Imagine a world in which the rules of spelling and grammar were not trifles to be argued about by word nerds but statutory laws. Imagine a country where the abuse of words was punishable by imprisonment.
Some might think this marvellous. Remove all the offenders who say “different than” instead of “different from”, lock them up with a grammar rulebook in a place where their misplaced apostrophes can do no harm, and civilisation would benefit. Wouldn’t it?
Except of course civilisation would not benefit. The right to freedom of speech means the right to choose which words we use, how we use, misuse, abuse or overuse them, and even how we spell them. Placing draconian restraints on language would be a violation of human rights.
The word “draconian”, incidentally, has nothing to do with language or word nerds. Nor does it have anything to do with dragons, which might surprise you. The Online Etymology Dictionary says that “draconian” came into use somewhere around 1876. It was derived from the name Draco – who was not a wizard from the Malfoy clan but rather a Greek statesman who laid down the laws of Athens in 621BC.
These rules were not particularly strict by modern standards, but given that Athenians had previously had pretty much free rein to do what they liked, any legislation that curtailed their freedom was considered unappealing, which is why the word “draconian” came to be understood as “really, really, really strict”.
Draco (not Malfoy) made minor crimes punishable by death. The OED entry does not list what these minor crimes might have been, but I think we’d have heard about it if these had included misdemeanours such as saying “like” instead of “such as”. Not that that shouldn’t be considered a cardinal sin.
Even the draconian Draco, however, did not go so far as to mercilessly chop off people’s heads for splitting an infinitive. Nor did he condemn the grammarly challenged to death for ending a sentence with a preposition, no matter where they were at.
Draco might have had an inkling that such heavy-handed rules would lead to revolution, and that giving legislative powers to militant word nerds (some call us “grammar Nazis”) might cause a language war.
Using force or even legislation to regulate the rules of speech and writing would make word nerds no different from dictators who spy on their citizens and arrest those who say anything seditious. It would make the person who tweeted yesterday that the press were “paddling fake news” into a Person of Interest – as far as the grammar security police were concerned – and heaven knows we don’t need to go back to those days.
In a state ruled by word nerds, all text messages would be monitored for aberrant spelling, and anyone who fell short of the demanded standards would be carted off to the grammar gulag.
This is not a world in which any of us want to live. Say there was a court set up to try those who committed crimes against language. Perhaps before the actual trials a commission of inquiry was appointed that attempted to ascertain the depths to which language use had sunk. Let’s call it the Bonzo Commission, where those who had written “there” instead of “their”, or “reign” instead of “rein”, or who had placed a criminal apostrophe in the plural “pizza’s” were called to explain their abominable actions.
Let’s say they could not account for their wrongdoing, and were eventually sentenced to be punished by a court of law. How do you punish nonconformists in the world of spelling and grammar?
Perhaps, rather than a dangling participle, they might receive a suspended sentence without community service for a first offence – such as the crime of mixing up “incident” with “incidence”. But what would happen if these word abusers turned into repeat offenders and tautologous recidivists who refused to stop writing “revert back” instead of just “revert”, or who consistently failed, despite compulsory attendance at grammar management classes, to grasp the difference between “loose” and “lose”?
Under the rules of these arbitrary grammar courts, those who insert a misplaced “d” into the word privilege (making it the nonexistent “priviledge”) would undoubtedly be sentenced to life behind bars, and I don’t mean the places where one learns to mix a good cocktail.
Hardened criminals who do not give a fig for simile or metaphor would care not one whit for these hypothetical language rules. Which leads me to wonder: what is a hardened criminal?
If one is forced to have criminals in one’s vicinity – which seems unavoidable for all sorts of reasons (my neighbour has three dogs despite our complex rule of only two, and refuses to buckle under legal pressure to eject one of them, which I applaud) – then I, for one, would prefer the softened sort of criminality (such as my neighbour’s) rather than have to face the type of criminal whose years in an oven of immoral complicity has left him with a hard-baked shellac crust resistant to all pleas for civic-minded thinking.
But what if my neighbour has knowingly and with insouciance been flouting the dog rules for years, and the so-called hardened criminal made a juvenile mistake for which he is sorry? Who’s hard now?
The upshot of all this is, well, I’m not sure really. Only that the Draco who gave us “draconian” didn’t really know what he was on about. And neither, if it comes down to it, do we.

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