Call me a fusspot, or simply German, but the rules of language do matter

 

PRESIDENT'S LOG:Me, myself or I? Unlike Janis Joplin, I’m driven to get the grammar right, insufferable pedant notwithstanding, writes FERDINAND VON PRONDZYNSKI

The phone rang. “Myself and Gerry need to see you,” a voice said (name withheld to protect the guilty). There followed a brief explanation of the subject, and then: “Don’t worry, me and Gerry will sort this out for you.”

I hear this expression all the time, and mostly I don’t bat an eyelid. But this time I said, “Me and Gerry?”

There was silence on the other end, clearly indicating that he had no idea why I was querying this. And why would he? All around us, it’s constantly “Me and Tom, Dick, Harry and Sally”. Gone are the days when you wouldn’t put yourself first in a sentence, and worse, gone are the days when someone would baulk at the idea that the phrase, “Me and Gerry will sort this out for you” could possibly be correct. After all, what he was saying was “Me will sort this out”.

“Gerry and I” I suggested.

“Why? Wasn’t it Me and Bobby McGee?”

While I was pleased to hear the reference to the song written by Kris Kristofferson and made famous by Janis Joplin, even a quick look at the grammar of the sentence from which the song title comes would show a wholly different context. (Mind you, it should have been Bobby McGee and Me, but that wouldn’t have worked with the meter.)

I suggested this to my friend, and there I lost him completely. “Grammar? What on earth are you talking about?” As the actual subject of his call was important and I was in danger of distracting him from it, I let it go. Sometimes you have to accept that you have lost a battle, maybe even a war.

But then a week later, the same person (who is actually a lovely individual and a friend) was in my office telling me about the outcome of that call. “It’s all done,” he said happily. “I’m glad you let me and Gerry get on with it.” Then he paused and smiled. “Oops! Of course I mean I’m glad you let Gerry and I get on with it.” And another smile, the smile of the quick learner.

Oh please, I thought to myself, let that be a joke. But heavens above, he was serious. So what do I do? Tell him, “No, it’s ‘You let Gerry and meget on with it’”? Of course not. I just smiled back.

When I told this story over dinner to a group of people recently, the consensus was quick and overwhelming: that I was an insufferable pedant. Someone pointed out that what we now consider to be the rules of grammar are of fairly recent origin, and that Shakespeare wrote his works without any regard to either spelling or grammar.

“If I was you,” he suggested, “I would forget about all that kind of stuff.”

Really, if I was you? Does nobody use the subjunctive any more? Can we not keep alive that it should be “If I wereyou”?

No, I suspect we can’t. Popular usage has moved beyond the recognition of such rules, and in fairness I knew what he meant, so why should it matter? Maybe I am just a pedant.

And yet, and yet . . . My excuse for this attitude is that English was not my first language. For the first seven years of my life I spoke only German, and when we moved to Ireland I had to learn my new language at school. It may also be significant that I learned English and Latin at the same time and, perhaps being Germanic, I was in any case looking for rules all the time.

So is it all just a bit of personal eccentricity? I don’t think so. In universities in particular, one of the transferable skills we should be helping studentd to acquire is accurate and self-confident communication.

Communication is not just about exchanging words; it is often about conveying precise and nuanced meaning. This becomes more important still when you factor in cultural influences and differences. In some languages tiny changes in meaning can produce huge changes in meaning, with possibly serious consequences.

The same is true in English. One way of demonstrating that is to take a popular phrase in English and feed it into an automated programme for translation, say, into German, and then translate the output back into English.

Nowadays such programmes are much more sophisticated,

but back in the 1970s it is said that an attempt to translate the biblical quote “the Spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” by computer into Russian and then back again into English resulted in “vodka is good, but meat is bad”. The story may be apocryphal, but it nevertheless makes an interesting point.

So I hope that we have not given up yet on grammar, or on the idea that language has a precise meaning. Our education system still needs to respect the intricacies of linguistic communication, and it is not good that we appear to have largely abandoned this.

Anyway, that’s what myself and Gerry think.


 Ferdinand von Prondzynski is president of Dublin City University