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7 Comments

  • 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.