A 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use, promising to improve their speech and writing if only they’ll follow a given set of rules – but these may be outdated shibboleths, or usages appropriate in formal situations but quite inappropriate in informal ones.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.Email this Post