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Agnes, Audrey and the book that changed me

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Granted, it’s an unlikely choice, but if I had to nominate one book that changed me more than any other, it’d have to be A Practical English Grammar by A.J. Thomson and A.V. Martinet.

I’d always confidently imagined them as two chaps, pipe-smokers both. But the two As actually stand for Agnes and Audrey. And being a textbook, and a standard textbook to boot, it’s usually known by the authors’ surnames: Thomson and Martinet. Three words normally guaranteed to have chills of fear running up the spines of its readers.

Why the chills of fear? Because Thomson and Martinet is a grammar manual, and it offers all the entertainment and excitement you’d expect from either of those two words on their own — put them together and you have a tome like Thomson and Martinet. Three hundred and fifty-eight excitement-free pages of rules and exceptions to rules and lists and categories about participles and prepositions and the subjunctive and the passive infinitive and so on and on.

Thomson and Martinet is dull and it is dull without shame or compromise. No cartoons, no fun examples. This is an old-school OUP textbook, first published in 1960. ‘A/ an (the indefinite article)’, the book opens in the less than gripping section 1: ‘The form a is used before a word beginning with a consonant, or a vowel with a consonant sound.’

Having got off to this flier, Thomson and Martinet dutifully plods its way through nouns and adverbs and whatnot until section 364: a six-page list of irregular verbs. Thomson and Martinet is as dry as the Moon.

It is also very often forbiddingly complicated, as any decent grammar of any language must be. One of my favourite of Thomson and Martinet’s reader-hostile complexities is section 19’s ‘explanation’ of adjectival ordering in English: ‘Several variations are possible,’ it begins already ominously, ‘but a fairly usual order is: adjectives of (a) size (except little; but see C below); (b) general description (excluding adjectives of personality, emotion etc.); (c) age, and the adjective little (see B)…’ Et cetera et cetera.

Awful, awful stuff, as all of Thomson and Martinet’s readers will immediately confirm. But to me, reading Thomson and Martinet was a revelation. As it would be to any native speaker of English. Because the grammar in this manual is that of our own language. Thomson and Martinet explains the real rules of English, which are nothing like any of the nonsensical edicts we were taught, or not. What we get served up to us as ‘grammar’ at school and in our bookshops is traditionalist nonsense about tiny matters of literary etiquette or made-up piffle about not using prepositions to end sentences with. Nonsense. All of it, preface to index — nonsense.

So native speakers get the drivel, while the real stuff is reserved for non-natives. Grammars like Thomson and Martinet aren’t for the likes of me — they’re for the billion or so people who are learning English as a foreign language. I came across Thomson and Martinet by accident, after I had bluffed my way into a dodgy language school and was desperately teaching myself the stuff I’d soon be teaching to benighted foreigners trying to learn English.

And despite its resolute commitment to tedium, I discovered that Thomson and Martinet was fascinating. And uniquely easy, given that I soon realised that I knew all of it already — it was like reading a 358-page instruction manual on how to eat a biscuit. Which is why none of us native speakers reads Thomson and Martinet. We don’t read it because we have no need of it. So could it really be worth even a glance?

Oh, yes. Oh, good Lord, yes. Because flicking through Thomson and Martinet made me suddenly aware of how truly brilliant I am and we all are, linguistically. Thanks to the stern but daft edicts of the traditional grammarians who police our language, many/ most of us still have a vague sense of shame or inadequacy about our English. But we should be marvelling at our stupendous, Nobel-prizewinning, unconscious command of our own language.

Take that lunarly dry example above about adjectival ordering — beyond comprehension for adult learners of English but easy-peasy for native speakers. We aren’t aware of it but when we use several different kinds of adjective together, these arrive (with some exceptions as in ‘little; but see C below’ etc) in a given sequence. And here it is: first come adjectives of opinion, then size, then age, shape, colour, origin, material and finally purpose.

That’s why we would never talk about a ‘black little dress’ or a ‘red London big bus’ or a ‘polka-dot, teensy-weensy, yellow, itsy-bitsy bikini’. And why we would always order the adjectives as in the following description: ‘a lovely big old round black Chinese ceramic mixing bowl’.

Let’s flick to another of Thomson and Martinet’s lunar-dusty sections that has English-learners clutching their heads and moaning softly: the gerund. As you probably don’t know you know, a gerund is a verb acting as a noun, and in English it is distinguished by its ‘-ing’ suffix. ‘My hobby is cooking’. ‘Smoking is forbidden’. And, as all non-English speakers know and no native is aware of, there are thirty verbs in English, like ‘enjoy’, which have to be followed by a gerund rather than the usual infinitive.

So far, so par for the language-learning course, but English adds a fiendish element to the gerund/infinitive palaver by having some verbs that can take either form with a corresponding change of nuance or meaning.

Sounds complicated — and it is, which is why sections such as 295 can so baffle non-English speakers and so astonish any native speaker. Section 295 outlines the behaviour of ‘like’. When it is followed by a gerundive-ing verb, ‘like’ indicates straightforward enjoyment, as in ‘I like eating ice-cream’. However, as section 295 goes on to explain, ‘like’ followed by an infinitive means something slightly different — the activity is beneficial, but not necessarily enjoyable. ‘I like to eat ice-cream’, you might say, if you’d just had your tonsils out. Hence the learner-defeating sentence, ‘I like to go to the dentist twice a year but I don’t like going’.

Conscious knowledge of our real grammar makes us able to negotiate the most problematic areas of our language. For foreign learners, the main problems of English grammar are ones we are blissfully unaware of, like those gerunds, and, worst of all, our 7,000-odd phrasal verbs (those which add a preposition to make a new meaning, such as ‘make’ + ‘up’). Whereas we natives have the most dreadful problems with our pronouns, with object pronouns turning up in subject positions and vice versa: ‘Me and him went to the shops’; ‘that’s between you and I’.

Thomson and Martinet changed my life in a very practical sense. After my student grant ran out, it helped me bluff my way as an occasional EFL teacher in my twenties, earning just enough each summer to get by for the rest of the year when I worked on what was to become my first book. It’s a no-brainerly obvious subject for any writer to master — their own language.

For any non-writer too. Why don’t we all know about the grammar of our language? Why don’t we all appreciate our mastery of English? Why did I have to stumble across real English grammar by accident in an EFL manual? Why shouldn’t we all know about the rules of our own language, outlined with such exemplary dullness by Thomson and blimming Martinet?

Harry Ritchie’s most recent book is English for the Natives.

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