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“Mrs. Smith, can I go to the bathroom, please?”

“I don’t know. Can you?”

May I go to the bathroom, please?

My son told me that this exchange took place regularly in his class last year. Many of us will have experienced something similar.

The teacher concerned probably responded on auto-pilot without really analyzing the language involved.

I suspect that after work she sometimes goes to the local Tim Horton’s and says:

“Can I get a toasted wholewheat bagel with plain cream cheese? And can I get a coffee – medium double double?”

I also suspect that the teacher wouldn’t like to hear this response:

“I dunno. I reckon your arms might not be long enough to reach this side of the counter.”

The point, of course, is that Can I is now a perfectly acceptable method of making a request. Almost all current grammar books will indicate this.

When my son told me about the bathroom conversation, this put me in a dilemma. I want my kids to trust their teachers. I also want them to have a coherent view of how language operates.

I explained that some people hold different views about what is grammatically acceptable. I know that this put doubt in my son’s mind about whom he can trust to give him correct information, but there you go. He also learned (or learnt if you prefer) that language use is complicated.

Correcting grammar that is already correct is definitely going too far, but correcting genuine grammatical errors can also become an obsession.

The internet is full of errors. Often, these are mistakes with its/it’s or there/their/they’re. Almost everyone slips up here from time to time, even though they might be fully aware of the rules. Some of us are busy and can’t type that well.

I know correct grammar is essential in many situations: Giving technical directions, explaining medical procedures, and documenting legal information are just three instances. See Le mariage de Figaro by Beaumarchais for a literary legal example.

However, there are many occasions when interventions by the grammar police are less justifiable. These include informal posts on message boards, hastily typed email messages, and instant messaging.

Corrections by the grammar police often include attacks on falling standards, unwanted trends, or any form of change. Superciliousness creeps in as well.

My basic view of language is as follows.

We use language for three key reasons: To give information, to get information, and to entertain.

At the heart of each reason is the desire to communicate effectively.

This driving force compels us to seek out appropriate language forms at our disposal.

Sometimes, people don’t care if they are making errors. They just want to communicate effectively.

Almost all of us break grammatical rules when we engage in conversation. In fact, normal interaction demands it. We reformulate sentences at mid-point if we see that our listeners are not following. We interupt others with bits of sentences and half-formed expressions. This is normal. It’s how we negotiate meaning.

If you don’t believe this, try recording and transcribing some of your informal chats throughout the day.

Technology has blurred the distinction between speaking and writing in areas such as instant messaging. Many people are now more tolerant of errors in this type of communication.

But not everyone.

I think correct grammar should be a flexible interpretation of generally acceptable usage, rather than a prescriptive set of rules carved in stone. Certain situations demand a certain level of clarity and unambiguity. Others don’t. Here, we can try to figure out what the person means. Or we can just ask them to make sure.

People (not grammarians) will always shape language according to need.

As usual, language is changing. And I’m loving it. 😉

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What is a wapentake?

A wapentake is an obsolete administrative area in the north of England. It is a sub-division of a riding. A wapentake originally indicated an assembly point where votes could be cast by the showing of weapons.

Wapentake seemed an apt name for a blog: a vague reference to a meeting place where views and arguments can be thrashed out with lexical weaponry. I grew up in what was the ancient wapentake of Staincross.

Yorkshire wapentakes

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