Love English

Grammar and Grammar

© PowerstockToday’s guest post comes from Jonathon Owen, an editor and book designer with a background in linguistics. Jonathon blogs about language at Arrant Pedantry, and his work on grammar and usage appears in Copyediting newsletter and on Visual Thesaurus and Huffington Post.


A few months ago, in a post titled “12 Mistakes Nearly Everyone Who Writes about Grammar Mistakes Makes”, I called it a mistake to confuse grammar with spelling, punctuation, and usage. But I also said that it’s a mistake to forget that correct usage ultimately comes from the users. Some commenters seized on the apparent contradiction between these two statements and wondered if I was being hypocritical. How can I say that the people are the ultimate arbiters of meaning while telling them that they’re using the word grammar wrong? Shouldn’t grammar mean whatever people use it to mean?

The problem comes down to the difference between the signifier and the signified, or in other words, between the word and the thing that it refers to. It’s my fault for being unclear—I talked about what the word grammar means rather than what grammar is. It’s true that many people use the word grammar to refer not only to the structural rules of syntax and morphology but to rules of spelling, punctuation, and usage. But it’s also true that syntax and style have little in common. The rules governing English word order and the use of a comma before the last item in a series don’t exactly form a natural class. It makes sense to distinguish between the structural rules that describe language in all its variety and the more artificial conventions that govern notions such as orthography, style, and formality.

To use an example from biology, people used to use the word fish to refer to just about any animal that lives in the water. While it may be handy to have such a catch-all term, it’s more useful to distinguish between the cold-blooded vertebrates with gills and two-chambered hearts and other animals that live in the water, such as invertebrates and aquatic mammals. In this case science informed popular usage, and we no longer use the word fish to refer to whales and dolphins.

It’s for similar reasons that linguists insist that grammar refer only to the rules that make up a language—syntax and morphology and sometimes phonology and even semantics and pragmatics. If you pronounce nuclear like nucular or use less with a count noun, some people may think you’ve committed an error and may judge you for it. But if you say “Me happy is” to mean “I am happy”, you’ve committed much more basic errors of English grammar. In the first case, someone might think you don’t speak English well; in the second, they might think you don’t speak it at all. (Arnold Zwicky explores the differences between these types of errors in more depth here.) Calling it all grammar can prevent us from seeing the different types of rules and different types of errors.

It’s possible for popular and technical definitions to exist side by side without causing much conflict, but it’s odd that people who are concerned with correctness and useful distinctions would lump things like spelling, usage, style, syntax, and morphology together under a single label. Isn’t it better to call these things what they are? So while I can say that people are the ultimate arbiters of correctness, I also see no problem with giving my opinion on what should be considered correct. And last I checked, linguists are people too, and they have just as much of a say as anyone else. Language is the ultimate democracy, and everyone gets a vote. I vote for greater understanding of what grammar really is.

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Jonathon Owen


  • I’m with you on this, Jonathon: I prefer to restrict grammar to its narrower sense(s) than to use it as a catch-all term for anything variable or regulable in usage. But I can see the use and appeal of having such a broad (and familiar) name. There was a related debate on my own blog some years ago, and one commenter suggested that my feelings about this were an example of ‘nerdview’, which was a fair point. Linguists’ use of grammar doesn’t seem nearly so widely known as the general use that covers style and spelling. And that’s OK – or it would be if some people weren’t using the word to belittle others’ usage. But a reminder now and then is worthwhile.

  • “Language is the ultimate democracy, and everyone gets a vote.”

    Spot on and totally fabulous – I think this may well turn out to be my quote of the year ….

  • Thanks, Stan. And the fact that linguists’ definition isn’t widely known causes a lot of problems. It was clear that a lot of people responding on Twitter to my blog post about teaching grammar were thinking more of mechanics and usage than parts of speech and sentence structure. If people aren’t clear on what grammar is, then discussions about whether or not it should be taught won’t get very far.

    Thanks, Kerry. 🙂

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