December 17, 2017

Why Stephen Fry gets it wrong on grammar

 If you're interested in writing, this Stephen Fry video is worth 6 minutes of your time. 

First of all, there's the amazing musicality of the audio. Injecting music into your writing is a powerful writing technique – as I have argued  - and I think Fry proves the point. By the time you’ve listened through, you’ve learned a great deal about how to interest and entertain your reader through musical prose. (It’s always a good idea to read aloud what you have written to know how it sounds.)

Secondly, Fry rightly puts the grammar pedants in their place. He asserts that most of what the grammar busy-bodies have to say about usage is irrelevant nonsense. No arguments from me, and more Kudos to Fry.

But Fry misses the point

copy-of-stephen-fry-copy-148737096But I still feel Fry misses the point.

For one thing, he kind of implies that grammar is entirely irrelevant. Which is not the case, of course. The fundamentals of grammar are non-negotiable for anyone who wants to be read. In reality, you can’t go around flouting every grammar rule known to man, unless you want to end up as opaque as Donald Barthelme.

And sometimes, even the grammar-obsessed/grammar-police make the right call. So, here’s how you know when: If the grammar rule helps readability, then go with it; if it doesn’t help readability, then  you don’t need to worry about it.

Readability, not grammar

Readability (and not grammar) is the issue for you and I (and me). Because if your writing isn’t readable, then the grammar is of no consequence: No-one’s going to read it anyway.

And sometimes grammar can be an excellent guide to readability.

Let’s look at some examples of when.


Use verbs, not nouns

The grammarians tell us that we should use verbs rather than nouns  wherever possible, and I agree.

Let me show you why through some examples from the great stylist, Joseph M Williams:

Which sentence is better?
"The intention of the committee is to audit the records."

"The committee intends to audit the records."

The second sentenced is better of course, but not because it follows some pristine grammar rule. It’s better because it reads better - the verb’ “intends” is stronger, clearer and more vivid than the noun “intention”. The meaning is clearer and the style is more likely to hold the reader's interest.

So, how about these?

“We did a review of the evolution of the brain”
“”We reviewed how the brain evolved.”

 Again, obviously, the second sentence is clearer and more direct.

One more.

“Our loss in sales was a result of their expansion in outlets.”
“We lost sales because they expanded outlets.”

No need, I think for any more comment.


Nouns are clumsy and abstract

I strongly recommend choosing verbs over nouns whenever possible. Nouns invite all sorts of clumsy constructions around themselves – the noun sentences are drab and artless and usually longer: “The intention of the committee is to audit the records”. Ouch.

But there’s something even more important at work here: Readability. Nouns that are converted from verbs tend to be abstract, and that's not good because abstractions are bad for readability.

 Martin Amis

My war against abstraction

There’s nothing to visualize (in your mind's eye) in an abstract sentence. Nobody’s doing anything. It's all vague.

Which makes it inevitable that these abstract nouns sap the energy of your piece. When they rob it of verbs they rob it of vigor. Abstract is not readable.

Martin Amis once declared a war against cliche. I suggest we need a war against abstraction – a topic I’ll come back to in the future.

But in the end, it’s all about readability. This is Fry's oversight. 



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  1. Stephen says:

    You war against abstraction is just as non-negotiable as grammar rules, lady. I think you are missing that part of language: it is made up!

    • Stephen says:

      I should clarify that by “it is made up”, I mean applying a general rules to language is pointless and limits it, because it is not non-arbitrary, and we don’t learn it in that way.

  2. Geoff says:

    Thanks for your post. I like the notion of readability vs grammar, but I must say that seems to be exactly what Mr. Fry is saying in almost every second of his six minute rant. And I love him for it. I don’t see him saying grammar is irrelevant at all. He actually mentions specific places where it is vital. He also says communicating is the key, which seems to translate to readability as far as I can see.


    P.S. I also love your idea of the war on abstraction. And, yes, it need it’s own article.

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