There is an apparent lack of consensus about English grammar rules. English is a quirky language, with more exceptions than rules, but that doesn't let you off the hook, writers.
Our Indie Editor at Large is pretty passionate about all things grammatical so we wanted to get her take on the subject. Look for her to hold forth on some of her favorite peeves, cautionary tales and even praise in her new monthly column, Spellcheck Cannot Save You! Have a question? Post it in the comments and she may address it in a future post.
Peeve: “English doesn’t have any rules.” Or its partner: “Grammar is just guidelines.”
Oh, but it does, and no, it isn’t. Grammar is nothing but that. Rules. (For the purposes of this post, when I say “grammar” I am not including the things most folks think of, like spelling, punctuation, and usage. Those are companions to grammar. Grammar is the rules that govern how a language forms words and connects them to create sentences.)
Who says English doesn’t have rules? Well, I won’t be naming names, but I see it more often than I would ever have imagined. Apparently, folks have come to think this because of discussions they encounter about things like usage (which has guidelines), pronunciation (which varies widely and is affected by more factors than I’m going to take the time to list), spelling (there’s less leeway here, but still—are you a “gray” or a “grey” advocate? Both are right, but only one is standard American English [AmE]), and so on.
English Grammar Rules Are Real
This post is about rules. The grammatical rules of English, specifically. Not that I’m going to outline them all, hellz no. But I am going to attempt to explain to you that yes, there are rules, and no, you can’t break them just because you’re feeling rebellious and the imp in the bottom of the coffee pot told you it’s a good idea.
First off, I’m going to provide you with a couple of quotations from two of the main English grammars (the word for texts that cover the rules of grammar): A Student’s Introduction to English Grammar, by Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey Pullum, and the Oxford English Grammar, by Sidney Greenbaum.
The grammar of standard English is much more stable and uniform than its pronunciation or word stock: there is remarkably little dispute about what is grammatical (in compliance with the rules of grammar) and what isn’t. (Huddleston and Pullum, 2005)
Guides to usage are predominantly descriptive. Many grammars contain both descriptive and prescriptive rules. The most sensitive guides and grammars point to stylistic variation, noting (for example) that the conjunction like is common in speech in standard English but not in writing. (Greenbaum, 1996)
So, you don’t have to take my word for it. These giants in the field of English grammar have used the word “rules” in their texts because rules exist. English grammar has rules.
Still Don’t Believe It?
How do you know what that previous sentence means? Or that one? (I’m always one sentence behind. Or ahead, depending on your perspective.) We know what sentences mean because of the rules of grammatical construction. (Word-formation is called “morphology”; sentence construction is called “syntax”; and together they fight crime. No, wait.) The rules for how words fit together into phrases and clauses and sentences allow us to understand. We learn this stuff Tomeinfancy. It’s ingrained. It’s effortless.
That is, until someone says “Okay, we’re going to learn grammar now,” and our eyes glaze over. (Well, yours, perhaps. Mine never did. I’m one of those weirdos who read grammars—the textbooks—for fun.)
Tombstones Aren't Only in Graveyards
And then, sadly, a lot of what we’re taught is wrong. Or misguided. Or it’s the teacher’s peeves presented like they were carved into stone and handed down on a mountaintop. That’s what happened in many 19th-century grammars; the authors’ preferences were codified, and behold, non-rules (often called "tombstones") were born. This is where we got nonsense like “never split an infinitive” and “never end a sentence with a preposition” and “never begin a sentence with a conjunction.”
None of those are actual grammar rules in standard English. Now, granted, I wouldn’t write a thesis containing sentence-ending prepositions and sentence-beginning conjunctions. But (HAHAHA!), that’s got zero to do with grammaticality and everything to do with register in writing. (Not sure what I mean by that? See my prior post all about register.)
The Challenges Are Also Real
Back to the basics, here. English grammar is nothing but rules of how words work together to make sense and sentences. And most of us were taught it badly. Some of us weren’t taught it at all, I’m told. Most English teachers do not have a good grounding in English grammar. How do I know that? I was one and know what we were taught. I spend a semester learning “transformational grammar,” which I never once had to teach. (It’s actually linguistic analysis. I know that, now, and if I were to tackle it again, I’d find it much more useful. Linguistics is kind of a big deal.) I taught Reed-Kellogg diagrams. Basics. Nouns, verbs, modifiers. My kids got so confused by prepositions, I gave up and taught six weeks on Greek comedy. They were all about making masks and sounding like frogs (“Brak-a-kak-kax! Brak-a-kak-kax!”). Then we went back to prepositions and it worked. (Prepositions show relationships between things. “Put the mask on the table.” We know where the mask will be: on the table. Not under it or next to it. On it.)
Learning Through Osmosis
These rules, as I said before, are things we learn without thinking. When our parents model language for us, we learn the rules of our particular variety of English. (Different dialects have different rules.) We know what “don’t touch that” means. We know that “you” is the implied subject of that sentence. Did your English teacher tell you every sentence has to have at least two words? Nope. It has to have a subject and a verb, but there might be only one word: STOP.
And the eight parts of speech? Oh, I got suckered in by that, too. And I was the troublesome kid who asked questions the teacher couldn’t quite answer because things weren’t adding up. “They broke off negotiations.” (I was in high school from 1971 to 1975. Vietnam War. Peace talks. Current events figured in our English classes, sometimes.) What is “off” in that sentence? It’s not really showing a relationship, which is what we’re told prepositions do; it seems to be connected to “broke,” doesn’t it? The concept of a phrasal verb (which is what “to break off” is) was nowhere to be found, for us. “To break off” is a phrasal verb, yes, containing the verb “to break” and the preposition “off,” but the words function as a unit. That verb and that preposition aren’t in their neat little boxes anymore.
English Grammar Rules Are Your Tools
English has rules. A sentence that breaks the rules will sound wrong, at the least, and make no sense, at the most. “Him went to the store.” That’s nongrammatical, rule-breaking, for standard English. “He went to the store.” That’s grammatical. We can hear it. “The cat played the fiddle.” Perfectly grammatical. Very imaginative, too. “Tomorrow she dress grabbed shoes.” I beg your pardon?
You want guidelines? Get a usage manual, or a dictionary, or a style guide (the word “guide” is right there).
But for grammar, you’ll get rules. There’s no way out of that one.
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