Grammar linguistics and lexicography Love English

Grammar at cross purposes

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use, promising to improve their speech and writing if only they’ll follow a given set of rules – but these may be outdated shibboleths, or usages appropriate in formal situations but quite inappropriate in informal ones.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


Stan Carey

Stan Carey is a freelance editor, proofreader and writer from the west of Ireland. Trained as a scientist and TEFL teacher, he writes about language, words, books and more on Sentence first, Macmillan Dictionary Blog and elsewhere. He tweets at @StanCarey.


  • 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 the source of a great deal of unnecessary tension and angst, but I can see no obvious way of correcting it. It is just a fact of life that linguists have to learn to accept and disregard where necessary.

  • 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 as an editor (and non-linguist) I do my best to counter the myths, and I know many more of my tribe who do likewise.

  • Hi Stan, I totally agree. I work with advanced level ESL students, and I find it more helpful to explain grammar points in terms of whether something is appropriate or not appropriate in any given context, rather than whether it’s right or wrong. By the time learners reach advanced levels, they should know (I think) about the various contentious grammar rules and what’s likely to be acceptable and what’s not – and it makes the study of the language so much more relevant and interesting.

    When I first came to Ottawa from the UK, it used to drive me crazy that the locals said “good!” in response to “how are you?”. Now I quite like it….so I’m either more linguistically enlightened or just more tolerant!

  • Jane: I have a feeling linguistic enlightenment and greater tolerance go hand in hand! That’s a great point about engaging students. Learning whether and how a usage is appropriate or not to a given context is likely to be more interesting to them than simplified black-and-white answers would be. It connects the language more firmly to the culture in which it will be used, while also hinting at the politics of usage, which tend to be inherently interesting anyway.

  • Absolutely, my original training was as a linguist, so, for me, grammar meant exactly what you say – morphology, syntax etc. Then when I ventured into writing fiction people would complain about my “grammar”. My tenses were ok, I didn’t mix up my antecedents. Whatever. What they meant was I used sentence fragments and ended sentences with prepositions kind of. But then I was writing English not Latin. It made me mad. Thanks for the opportunity to vent.

  • You’re welcome, John. I find it’s a frequent sticking point in discussions of language use, and one that’s not easily resolved. The technical sense of the word allows a useful distinction, but there’s no convenient alternative term for what non-specialists call ‘grammar’. So the majority use it in the broader sense, which in turn can help elevate superstitions and pointless peeves to the level of iron-clad rules.

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