The Glamour of Grammar by Roy Peter Clark

Two long-standing schools of thought have dominated discussion in grammar. The prescriptive school looks at the way the language ought to be used. Its adherents set out the rules of grammar as the standard to follow. The alternative, descriptive approach views language as living and evolving – language as it's used.

In The Glamour of Grammar: A Guide to the Mystery and Magic of Practical English, Roy Peter Clark thoroughly explores the shift from the notions of how people ought to speak (prescriptive) versus how they do in fact speak (descriptive).

For instance, “Where you at?” is a common question in current, regional discourse.  The prescriptive approach would pronounce this a faulty use of grammar, arguing it violates both the rule of a complete sentence needing a verb, and the rule not to end a sentence with a preposition. Prescriptivists may go even so far as to suggest that the speaker is uneducated, using sub-standard English.

By contrast, the descriptive perspective would recognize this question as an expression commonly used. The only measure it must meet is: Does it, in fact, communicate? If the person hearing it understands what is being asked, it qualifies as acceptable, and may be considered even to be an advancement or evolution of the English language.

Clark sees value in both approaches and believes they can be reconciled by people “living in the language.” Such living is achieved by removing the rigidity of the rules of grammar while retaining them as standards. He considers standards such as not ending a sentence with a preposition or including a verb in every independent clause to be tools of grammar. They are devices to be used as appropriate to the conveyance of the writer/speaker’s meaning, with the goal of achieving the language user’s purpose. Clark would go so far as to say that breaking free of these standards should be done fairly rarely, only after due consideration. 

However, as meaning and purpose adjust to context, the user of language must not neglect how language communicates to a given audience. Sensitivity to contextual elements can give language power at times when adherence to the standards cannot. This is the essence of rhetoric, the art of persuasion.

With the above example, Clark would likely say that, all things being equal, “Where you at?” is sub-standard English and should be corrected to “Where are you?”  However, given certain contexts, “Where you at?” may be a more powerful, purposeful expression. 

For instance, Hansel and Gretel get on their cell phone to tell their starving parents that they found an entire house made of gingerbread. Drooling, the parents might eagerly respond “Where you at?” The circumstances, which make this question more emphatic and urgent, can make it preferable to the more standard form of the question.

Clark takes the reader on a grammatical journey, leading from “Words” (a section so basic that the author starts by suggesting in all seriousness that readers select a favorite letter of the alphabet) through “Points” (punctuation), “Standards” (grammatical rules), “Meaning,” and “Purpose.”  In a style that might appeal to members of the sound-byte generation, each category contains numerous, brief chapters (2 to 6 pages in length), in which Clark explains and illustrates the points he wants to make. At the end of each chapter, he includes a list of “Keepsakes,” which highlight the important lessons of that chapter. 

In Chapter 11, where Clark spends three pages examining how we’ve loosened the rule against using foreign words in writing, he writes in the Keepsakes:  “Don’t use foreign words or phrases just to show off [a nod to the Prescriptive approach], but if a foreign word or phrase captures something special, use it [a Descriptive attitude].”  Mostly, these Keepsakes pull together ideas presented in the chapter, but sometimes, they add new ideas not discussed earlier.

The Glamour of Grammar is a grammar book, but it is not a grammar textbook.  Although Clark does refer to the chapters as lessons, these lessons are quite dissimilar to what you would find in The Holt Handbook or The Little, Brown Handbook – guides that go into great detail about the points of grammar they present. 

By contrast, Clark’s work treats grammatical issues in broad strokes.  The last two sections, “Meaning” and “Purpose,” are more the province of rhetoric. They are, though, the highlight of this book. They are his goal. This work is meant to display the power and the magic of language.* Clark’s illustrations are drawn from contemporary sources, as well as from classical ones. Occasionally, his examples are burlesque, or risqué, using humor and mild shock as a didactic device. For instance, when making a point about a group naming themselves ? and the Mysterians, he mentions their greatest hit, “96 Tears,” writing, “which horny teenage boys assumed was an inversion of their sacred number 69.”

Unlike grammar texts, this is an eminently readable book. The authorized permission provided by Clark to be creative with language, the vast array of interesting and often amusing examples, and the reader-friendly chapters and keepsakes make this work about grammar surprisingly difficult to put down. Even the appendices, dealing with hard-to-spell words, words often confused, and a review of the points made in the book, are both helpful and engaging. His work is a refreshing break from the tedium of the usual grammar book.

About the Author

Bill Downing is no one of importance, but he does work at the Library and sometimes teaches Philosophy at Rockhurst University.


* Mr. Clark does an etymological trace, in the beginning of the book, back to the common origin of the title words ‘glamour’ and ‘grammar’. The ancient Greek word grammatikos literally means “of letters.” It was used to refer to all types of learning. Over the centuries, it picked up the meaning, not only of learning, but also of magic, particularly magic involving the speaking of spells. This notion of magic survived even when a Scottish scholar substituted an “l” for the traditional “r” in the word, from which the word ‘glamour’ emerged. Only recently have the two words been separated significantly in meaning.