Barry Saunders

Saunders: An incorrect English lesson from an Englishman

Did I ever tell you about the last time I was in London and tried to act more worldly than someone from Rockingham ever should and badly mispronounced to the cabdriver the section of town to which I wanted him to take me?

He turned and gave me a look of befuddlement. “What’s that, guvna?”

That’s the same thing I said to the grammar critic from across the pond who wrote to rebuke me for what he considers a grammatical mistake.

Oliver Kamm – who writes a grammar column, among other things, for The Times of London newspaper – happened upon a piece I wrote this week about the Raleigh sandwich-maker with the big knife who told me to shut up and the computer that treated me like a nescient Sammy Sausagehead.

A quick recap: my computer kept “correcting” a sentence I’d constructed, even though I knew my version was already correct. The disputed sentence read: “At the time, there was already a handful of women in the department.”

The computer, which goes by Mac, kept changing that to: “At the time, there were already a handful of women in the department.”

Now, there are only two “Jeopardy!” categories on which I’d confidently bet all of my money – 1970s pop music and grammar – so there was no chance of me meekly capitulating to a computer that had never sat in Mrs. Blackwell’s second-grade class, Mr. Webb’s ninth grade one or Mrs. Martin’s 10th grade one.

Because I’m nothing if not humble, I chose not to trust alone my knowledge of the subject. I enlisted what I presume to be an even more learned ally – Dr. Jennifer Ho, associate professor and director of graduate studies in the Department of English & Comparative Literature at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Dr. Ho, after reading the passage that got my computer’s tights all twisted, agreed with me.

One might presume that her book-learnin’ and my intuitive grasp of grammar made us, as a pair, unassailable.

Not to Kamm. Dude assailed the heck out of us.

“Dear Mr. Saunders and Dr. Ho, I’m afraid you’re both mistaken,” he wrote. “On the grammatical principle of notional concord, it should indeed be ‘there were’ and not ‘there was.’ See ‘Randolph Quirk’s A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language’ (1985) or indeed my own ‘Accidence Will Happen: The Non-Pedantic Guide to English.’”

What’s that, guvna?

The irony in Kamm telling us we’re mistaken is that, in his latest book and in opinion pieces, Kamm seems to assert what could be interpreted as a laissez-faire attitude toward language and grammar. In a 2015 Wall Street Journal piece, for instance, he wrote, “It is well past time to consign grammar pedantry to the history books. ... Whatever is in general use in a language ... is for that reason grammatically correct.”

Say, isn’t that how we got stuck with “conversate”?

Once upon a time, when someone employed the made-up conjugation “conversate,” you knew you were talking to a pseudo-intellect at best, an intellectual philistine at worst. Yet, because – as Kamm contends – so many people used it, it has already wormed its way into dictionaries and acquired a sheen of respectability.


Kamm also dismisses as “destructive pieces of folklore” the accepted prohibitions against splitting infinitives and ending sentences with prepositions.

Where’d he learn that at?

Does that mean that if more people say mis-CHEE-vious instead of the proper MISchievous – to cite one fingernail-across-the chalkboard example – then we should go with the former or at least accept it?

Not wanting to precipitate an international incident – we’ve already got a presidential candidate who seems intent upon doing that – over grammar, I asked Kamm to clarify, lest I oversimplify or misinterpret his reasoning. “No, it’s not at all my view that whatever anyone says is correct,” he said. “My point is rather that the only way to work out what these rules are is to examine the facts of usage. What is in general use cannot be grammatically incorrect: as far as I know, there’s not a scholarly linguist anywhere who would disagree with this.”

Well, I reckon I ain’t no scholarly linguist, because I disagree. “Was” is singular and “were” is plural and never the twain shall meet.

That rule may not apply on the other side of the pond, but it does on this side.

Cheerio, old bean.