There are two takes on grammar. According to one, grammar is a set of rules which we should stick to if we do not wish to appear uncultured. So anyone saying ‘I seen’ or ‘I done’ can quickly be identified as ill-educated. Some of those who look at grammar in this way can be remarkably inflexible, as if ‘the rules of grammar’ had been also brought down the mountain by Moses.
This was the take on grammar I encountered at school. We were taught that we should not begin a sentence with ‘and’ or ‘because’ and that split infinitives were to be avoided. The most famous split infinitive is probably ‘to boldly go’, and it seemed to work for Captain Kirk. But leaving him to one side . . .
The second take on grammar is that it is a description of how a given language works. Since each language is different each will require its own grammar if it is to be adequately accounted for. This was the approach to grammar I encountered university. It soon became apparent that the grammar of English we were taught at school left a lot to be desired since it was based on Latin grammar and the two languages – English and Latin – are radically different.
Despite all this enlightenment, small grammatical points (in the first sense) can cause us problems when writing. Three examples.
The custom is to follow a singular noun with a singular verb, a plural noun with a plural verb:
the boy smiles, the men smile. But sometimes following this rule can sound wrong.
‘A troupe of monkeys attacks the tourists’. This is ‘correct’. There is only one troupe – singular – so the verb should be singular too. The trouble is the singular verb comes immediately after a plural noun and sentences like this can trouble the ear. It is always possible to express the idea differently, my preferred way out, so that the problem does not arise.
This is not used as often as it was in the past but it can crop up, for example, in association with the word ‘if’.
Which do we prefer, ‘if I was,’ or ‘if I were’? In direct speech the answer is usually obvious: what would your character say? When it comes to indirect speech it will boil down to the preference of the writer, though I often feel that the subjunctive feels a little bit precious now.
(It is interesting that in Spanish, that very user-friendly language, there are not one but two forms of the imperfect subjunctive.)
Who and whom
I am almost incapable of not using ‘whom’ when that is the form which ‘should’ be used. Call me old-fashioned if you will.