Book review: Have You Eaten Grandma? By Gyles Brandreth

Have You Eaten Grandma? is another entry in the list of books that claim to be about grammar, but are mostly about punctuation and spelling. It’s written by Gyles Brandreth, who, like others that write these kinds of books, claims to love language but spends his whole book proving that he actually hates it.

I’m going to start off with good stuff in this book. Then we’ll move on to the meh stuff and end with the garbage fire material.

Before we get to that, let’s meet the author, Gyles Brandreth. His bio at the start says:

Gyles Daubeney Brandreth is an British theatre producer, actor, politician, journalist, author, and TV presenter. Born in Germany, he moved to London at the age of three and, after his education at New College, Oxford, he began his career in television.

He went from presenting Puzzle Party in the 1970s, to appearing in Countdown’s Dictionary Corner for over 300 episodes. His career has since encompassed becoming an MP and appearing regularly on TV and radio, but writing is his true passion.

His past books include; Word Play, Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations and Breaking the Code: Westminster Diaries.

Brandreth is many things, but linguist or language professional is not one of them. This will be important later when he talks about grammar.

Apparently talking about language on a bunch of game shows is enough to get you a book deal on the topic. Why do publishing companies still let non-professionals write books on topics that they’re not experts in? I don’t know. I guess they sell. I wish they didn’t.

Ok, forget that. We’re starting off with the bad stuff in this book. Because it’s mostly bad.

The bad

Lies, lies, lies

The first line of the book says “Language is power and how we use it defines us.” This sentence is going to become important soon when we look at how Brandreth describes grammar. But I want to point out that right off the bat I had a feeling that this book would not address the topic of language and power. I was right.

Also on the first page is the typical trite remarks from these kinds of anti-language books: “And since the way we use language tells the world so much about us, it’s worth getting it right.” So Brandreth wants you to know there’s a right way and a wrong way to use language. Which way is the right way? The way that Gyles Brandreth thinks is right, silly. But not the actual way that Gyles Brandreth uses language, as we’ll see shortly.

Next we get Gyles Brandreth’s credentials for writing a book about language:

I’m a language obsessive and a punctuation perfectionist. (That doesn’t mean to say I always get it right, but I always aim to.) My mother was a teacher; my father was a lawyer; they brought me up with a love of words. And they sent me to good schools. I was educated by teachers of English who knew their grammar and the value of it. As a child I read dictionaries at breakfast and asked for a copy of Fowler’s Modern English Usage for my tenth birthday. I have loved word games all my life. When I was twenty-three, I founded the National Scrabble Championships. Since then, whether as a journalist or a broadcaster, an actor or a member of parliament, words have been central to my life. I am proud to be the longest-serving resident in Countdown’s Dictionary Corner on Channel 4, the host of BBC Radio 4’s Wordaholics, a regular on Just a Minute, a reporter on The One Show on BBC1, and the Chancellor of the University of Chester. Words are my everything.

Suspiciously absent from that list are words like “linguist” or “language professional” or even “person who reads books on linguistics and grammar”. Also, how come Brandreth’s family – if they brought him up with a love for words – didn’t already have a copy of Fowler’s?

All this bluster leads into what we’re really here for: language hating. (Full disclosure: I read this book knowing I was going to probably hate it. And I did, so I guess we’re even.) Brandreth says that his mission in writing this book is “to anatomise some of the linguistic horrors of our time”. Linguistic horrors. I saw that one coming. (Another thing I’m sad to say that I saw coming: The chapter with linguistic horrors ends on shaming a young woman. Because of course it does.)

On page 3, we get more evidence that Brandreth either doesn’t know what he’s talking about or doesn’t care. He says, “I am passionate about the English language. It’s the richest language in the world.”

Prove it, Brandreth. Because these kinds of comments are not made by people who study language. Linguists don’t rank languages in terms of how “rich” they are – because that doesn’t make any sense. You can like a language more than another, but that’s akin to liking one kind of fruit more than another. It’s doesn’t make your favorite fruit better or worse than others. And your opinion matters about as much as a rotten banana.

Later on the same page, Brandreth claims that “All the research shows that the better the English you speak and write, the happier and more successful you will be.”

ALL THE RESEARCH!!! Does Brandreth cite any of all the research? No. Of course he doesn’t. You’ll just have to trust him that all. the. research. says this.

But this is another common trope in these language-hating books. They claim that good grammar equals happiness. What they don’t say (because I don’t think they realize it) is that what they really mean is if everyone spoke and wrote like the author, then the author would be happier. Because the author hates other people for the way that they use language. And the author can see no other solution to this problem then getting everyone else to change. Hence, the language hating book that you’re reading. Brandreth isn’t even original with this idea. Here’s an earlier example of the grammar = happiness nonsense from N. M. Gwynne, another person who hates language.

It gets worse from here. Brandreth next claims that “People with better English are healthier and live longer lives because they can understand and communicate better with doctors, nurses, and carers.” (p. 3) This one isn’t just wrong, it’s dangerous. There is research showing that marginalized people are less likely to be believed by doctors and nurses – because they are black, brown, queer or some combination of those. It doesn’t matter how well you speak sometimes. Or how “articulate” your racist doctor thinks you are. Marginalized people suffer at the doctor’s office and hospitals. This kind of stuff is incredibly easy to find out, but Brandreth didn’t even bother to do a simple internet search.

Gyles Brandreth thinks he gets better healthcare because of the way he speaks. A knowledge of linguistics would help Brandreth from making this dangerous claim. His publisher is also on the hook for allowing this to be published. I don’t think whoever copy edited this book had an understanding of linguistics either. This harmful passage and the pratfall section on grammar is proof of that.

Finally – still on page number 3 – we get the tritest of trite comments that can be found in books written by people who hate language: “alarmingly, good English is under threat.”

Fuck off. Under threat from who? Let me guess – people who don’t look and sound like Gyles Brandreth? Because those are the people who use “good” English, right?

Brandreth offers the following evidence to back up this claim: surveys and YouTube polls.

Surveys. And YouTube polls.

Surveys and YouTube polls which show that some people think that English is under threat. Which is totally different than the language actually being under threat. But, you know, if we recognized that “good” English isn’t actually under threat, then Gyles couldn’t write his book.

Also, this claim is utter trite. English (good or bad) is the least threatened language in the world. It’s the goddamn lingua franca! English literally threatens other languages. There are actual languages that are actually under threat. Languages dying. And we get this hackneyed comment about English being under threat. GTFOH with this.

Finally finally, at the end of the intro, we get a huge self-own. Brandreth writes:

To me, punctuation matters and good spelling is essential. Clear written communication depends on them. The words we use and the way in which we use them are fundamental, but the nuts and bolts of grammar – and the vocabulary of the grammarian – are less important to me. […]

[Y]ou don’t need to understand all the intricacies of English grammar to be able to communicate well. I use a computer, but I have no idea how it works. I have a wife, but I have no idea why she stays. I take statins, and while the doctor did explain that they inhibit the HMG-CoA reductase – that rate-limiting enzyme of the mevalonate pathway – all I need to know is that they should help lower my bad cholesterol and reduce the risk of a heart attack. (pp. 8-9)

These are the reasons that Glyes Brandreth doesn’t write books about computers, his wife, or statins. And yet when it comes to language and grammar…. I mean, I agree that you don’t need to understand the intricacies of English grammar to communicate well… But you might need to understand them in order to write a book about language.

Gyles Brandreth is not good at grammar

I’m going to focus on two parts here: Brandreth’s misunderstanding of discourse markers and his misunderstanding of grammar (including his own). First, let’s talk about everyone’s favorite word: like

In a section called So Annoying, Like, Brandreth says:

I’m with Carl Sandburg. I quite like slang. What I don’t like is, er, ‘like’…

I was on the bus yesterday and I overheard a teenage schoolboy tell his friend: “I was like a bit late like, not like a lot late like, just a bit like late, but he like just went like ballistic, you know like, really totally mad. It was terrible like.’

It is terrible like the way ‘like’ has become the go-to linguistic filler of our times. It’s not the only one, of course. There’s ‘um’ and ‘er’ [You just fucking used er – in print!] and ‘I mean’, as well: sounds, words, and phrases that serve no useful purpose, get in the way of what you want to say, and can be very, very irritating.” (pp. 236-237)

This is what we call anecdotal evidence. One schoolboy on one bus in one city on one day and in one sentence is given as evidence that like “has become the go-to linguistic filler of our times”. I know you think you’re good with language, Gyles, but that’s not how linguistics works.

Any introductory linguistics textbook would clear this up. These words are called discourse markers and they absolutely serve a useful purpose. You would figure someone who claims to care about language so much would – oh, I don’t know – read a book about the study of language! There’s even a Wikipedia page about discourse markers. You could read it on your phone. While you’re on the bus.

But Gyles isn’t done…

Listening to the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 this morning, every one of eight consecutive interviewees began their first answer with either the word ‘Well’ or the word ‘So’. It’s so annoying – and, well, unnecessary. (p. 237)

Maybe beginning with well or so is how you answer the first question in an interview on the radio? Did you ever think of that? At what point after hearing everyone do a certain thing do you stop and think, “Huh, I guess that’s how that thing is done”? Brandreth probably looks at dogs and wonders why they don’t walk around on their hind legs. Probably watched soccer and wonders why only the goalies are using their hands – which is the right way to handle a ball, duh.

Also, guess what? You know what’s coming, don’t you? That’s right. In the first video on a search for “Gyles Brandreth interview”, Brandreth begins his first answer… with the word well. Fuck off one thousand times, Gyles. (But also thank you for not making me have to watch more than 16 seconds of interviews with you. 😗)

There’s a grammar turd at the end of this book

Next let’s look at Brandreth’s brain farts about grammar. He saves his comments on grammar for the very last section, a full 287 pages into the work. And then he spends less than 10 pages on the topic. It’s almost like this guy who is writing about grammar, who put the word “grammar” on the cover of his book, can’t be bothered with writing anything about grammar. Strange, isn’t it?

But I know why Brandreth tucked his grammar section way in the back: because he makes an ass out of himself when discussing grammar. Seriously. After calling grammar lessons “the worst kind of punishment” and claiming that his readers don’t need to know about grammar (and trust me, you’re not going to know anything about grammar by reading Gyles Brandreth’s book), he says:

The person or thing doing the action is the subject of the sentence. The subject is either a noun or a pronoun.” (p. 288, bolding Brandreth’s)

Lol. The subject of the sentence is absolutely not the person or thing doing the action – that’s the agent and that’s a semantic analysis. The Subject is a term for syntactic analysis and we figure out what it is in a few different ways. But guess what? The subject of a sentence in English can be a noun phrase, a prepositional phrase, a finite clause, a non-finite clause – all kinds of stuff. Again, just a peak into a linguistics book or a grammar would clear this up for Brandreth. But I guess it’s too much torture.

Brandreth claims that the Subject is either a noun or a pronoun, nothing else. So how far into Gyles Brandreth’s book do you think we have to go to find a sentence in which the subject is not a noun or a pronoun? If you guessed ZERO SENTENCES, you would be correct. The very first sentence of this book is “Language is power and how we use it defines us.” In the second independent clause of that sentence, how we use it is neither a noun nor a pronoun. It’s a finite clause functioning as the subject. Brandreth doesn’t know about grammar, doesn’t care about grammar, doesn’t care that he doesn’t know about grammar. I mean, A Student’s Introduction to English Grammar covers the Subject in three pages. Three whole pages. And Brandreth couldn’t be bothered to read that much.

He makes the same mistake with the syntactic element Object – he says they have to be nouns or pronouns and he recognizes them with a semantic definition.

The rest of the (very few) pages of grammar are middling at best. He gets some things correct, but then says that English has a future tense (it doesn’t) and that aspect is a tense (it isn’t). The section is essentially too short to give you anything beyond dictionary definitions of grammar terms. Or then it’s just straight wrong.

The Good

There are a few places where Brandreth manages to not completely step in it. He tells us not to be which hunters but also says who has to be used for humans (p. 194). So it’s a wash. He also has a surprisingly good explanation of plurals in English – except for the end where he says words like government need to take a singular verb (p. 125). This isn’t the case, especially when the collective noun is made of people. So, again, ups and downs.

The problem with the good parts in this book are that you have to wade through the garbage to get to them. You will literally learn wrong things on your way to the good things. And this is knowledge that you can get other places – where it’s not sandwiched between two slices of moldy bread.

Have you eaten grammar?

So that’s it. Have you eaten Grandma? is no better or worse than the other “language” and “grammar” books out there. I mean the ones that are written by people who say that they really like language, but then they go on moaning about it for 300 pages. And as is typical for books in this genre, Brandreth writes with authority but has clearly never bothered to check his facts. I say throw it in the sea.

Full disclosure: I read this book last summer and did a Twitter thread on it. So if you’d rather read that, here you go:

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