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  • Grammar at cross purposes

    Posted by on March 30, 2015

    ©  BRAND XA recurring theme in Macmillan Dictionary’s Real Grammar series is the difference between actual rules in English grammar and misconceptions or ill-founded assumptions about what constitutes such a rule. Some of the issues addressed, like split infinitives and singular they, are familiar from decades or even centuries of usage debate; others, like bored of, are more recent sources of contention.

    Much of the trouble comes from the word grammar itself. When linguists talk about grammar they are normally referring to morphology, syntax, and so on – the systematic rules that we learn informally as infants. This is reflected in Macmillan’s definition of grammar as ‘the set of rules that describe the structure of a language and control the way that sentences are formed’. When speaking or listening to a language, George Lakoff wrote in Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things, we use grammar ‘automatically, effortlessly, unconsciously, and almost continuously’.

    When non-linguists talk about grammar, they are normally referring to more transient things like spelling, style, and conventions of usage. This discrepancy between the technical and popular interpretations of ‘grammar’ fosters uncertainty and disagreement over what a grammatical rule is, and what therefore counts as correct. Disputants may be at cross purposes because advice on ‘grammar’ is often simply instruction on style and usage.

    Some self-appointed authorities trade on the apprehension people feel about language use, promising to improve their speech and writing if only they’ll follow a given set of rules – but these may be outdated shibboleths, or usages appropriate in formal situations but quite inappropriate in informal ones. It’s far easier to offer people simple rules based on always saying this and never saying that. But it’s misleading and counterproductive: it ignores the natural diversity and nuances we find in the different varieties of a language, and it can make people (especially learners) unduly anxious about expressing themselves.

    Grammar rules, as I once tweeted, come from how people use language. They emerge from the bottom up; they are not imposed top-down from logic, Latin, or some higher ideal. As Michael Rundell put it, ‘if most speakers and writers (whether in general, or within a particular community) adopt a particular usage, then it must be seen as a grammatical norm’. People who want their linguistic instructions obeyed find this deeply challenging.

    Macmillan’s series on real grammar does not parrot prescriptions based on borrowed assumptions or traditional authority; instead, it looks at the evidence of how people use language in various circumstances, marking where necessary whether a usage is formal or informal, for example. This approach takes into account the complexity of usage and allows people to consider the data and make up their own minds instead of feeling hounded by facile, anachronistic dogma.

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Recent Comments

Recent Comments
  • Posted by Stan Carey to Grammar at cross purposes on March 31, 2015 Jeremy: Certainly there's no immediate and guaranteed way of resolving this and transcending the unnecessary confusion over what counts as correct and where. Misinformation seems to spread more quickly than facts, in part because it takes the form of simple lore rather than nuanced complexity, and also because people often prefer to play it safe, heeding (and parroting) even bogus authorities rather than checking with trustworthy sources. Editors are responsible for some of the trouble, but...

  • Posted by Jeremy Butterfield to Grammar at cross purposes on March 30, 2015 I couldn't agree more. But I'm afraid that most people who profess to care about grammar -- editors, or soi-disant editors of other people's work, in particular -- fail to grasp the distinction between the rules we all instinctively use and agree on, and the invented, alleged rules. Black is black and white is white as far as they are concerned: there are no shades of grey (far less, fifty). As you say, this misinterpretation is...

  • Posted by Macmillan Dictionary to Business letter format on March 27, 2015 I think the 2nd is better than the first, because it's clearer, but how about: Mr Lolly and I would like to thank you for...

  • Posted by devon to Business letter format on March 27, 2015 Is this correct On behalf of Mr. Lolly and me, we would like to thank you for or On behalf of Mr. Lolly, please accept our thanks for

  • Posted by Jenny Morley to Gwyneth Fox remembered on March 26, 2015 Although I have known Gwyneth for over fifteen years since her elder daughter, Karen and my elder son, Ben married I only go to know her well last year. In an act of typical generosity she had me to stay whilst I was in recovery from a shoulder operation, a month after I had also been widowed.She was wonderful company and, in spite of my sling ,our feet did not touch the ground! Later in 2014...