I spent a little time in the classroom yesterday, correcting a test. One of the exercises required the students to finish the sentence Is the climate cold, or… with one of three options. One was …is it too hot? and another was …is it multicultural?
Obviously the correct answer was …is it too hot? But one student asked if …is it multicultural? could be right too. And of course it wasn’t, but then I thought: It also kind of is.
Logically, obviously, it doesn’t make sense. How can a climate be multicultural? You could be pedantic and say it’s referring to a climate in a more abstract sense, as in a general atmosphere in a place, but in the context of this sentence, it’s obviously geographical climate we’re talking about.
Still though, grammatically, there’s nothing wrong with the …is it multicultural answer. Because multicultural is an adjective, the second clause still matches the first one in the sentence, even if the two adjectives themselves don’t logically complement each other.
You could even have something completely different at the end:
Is the climate cold, or do you want chicken?
Is the climate cold, or what about putting a funny hat on the dog?
Is the climate cold, or six o’clock?
None of those sentences are logically correct, but grammatically, they’re fine. All or requires is two alternatives on either side of that, but the grammar doesn’t care what those alternatives are, or if they make sense to us.
Not to say that grammar’s not important, just that it’s more important to actually think of the logic of what you want to say, and not just whether it’s grammatically correct. Grammar’s importance is in providing a general pattern for a language to build itself, to give general guidelines whose blanks we fill in with the correct answers.
This inevitably means that sometimes something can be purely grammatically correct, but logically bizarre. It reminds me a little of mathematics. It can involve purely hypothetical concepts and numbers which we can’t translate into concrete reality (have you ever seen minus one of something?) But these abstractions are necessary for the whole field of mathematics to work, and for all the real-world applications produced by it.
Equally, grammar might not always make sense on its own, but it gives language the form it needs to make sense. And ask me about grammar any time, but not maths!