“Real Grammar” – accept no substitutes!

Posted by on September 02, 2014

Macmillan Dictionary - Real GrammarWelcome to our new series on “Real Grammar”, which kicks off with a quiz. But this is a grammar quiz with a difference. As regular readers will know, all of us who write for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog have consistently argued that most grammar quizzes (and for that matter, most websites dispensing advice on “correct grammar”) are at best misguided and at worst positively dangerous – so what makes our quiz any different?

We all agree that grammar is important.The rules of grammar describe the structure of a language, and explain how words fit together to create meanings. Whether English is your first language or a language you’re learning, knowing how the grammar works is essential for effective communication. So you need to know the rules – but which ones? Prescriptive grammarians believe that grammar is a simple matter of “right or wrong”, and that if everyone just followed their rules, the language would be preserved from degenerating into a chaotic free-for-all. Yet many of the “rules” laid down by prescriptive grammarians no longer reflect the way people use language when they communicate with one another. Despite this, these rules are passed down from generation to generation as if they were set in stone and incapable of ever changing. This is a “top-down” approach to grammar, where a group of “experts” tell the rest of us how we should speak and write.

“Real Grammar”, on the other hand, recognises that language is more complex than this. Context and register are important: what might be inappropriate in a very formal setting may be perfectly acceptable in a conversation between friends. In some cases, too, grammatical norms vary according to region, with different preferences in different parts of the English-speaking world. And grammar can change over time. Even prescriptivists accept that the vocabulary of a language is subject to change and renewal – but grammar is no different. In many of her posts, Gill Francis – herself a distinguished grammarian – has illustrated aspects of the grammar system which have undergone interesting changes in recent years.

Above all, Real Grammar is based on evidence. When we explain meanings and usages in the Macmillan Dictionary, everything we say starts from an analysis of the language data in our corpus. Prescriptive rules on grammar are not evidence-based, and some prescriptivists claim that evidence is irrelevant to questions of grammar. Just because many people adopt an “incorrect” usage, they argue, that doesn’t make it right. Well, that may be true up to point. But what we are talking about is unmistakable, long-term trends, where the corpus evidence clearly demonstrates that most people, in all types of text (whether conversations, novels, or serious academic textbooks) have adopted grammatical conventions which are different from those of fifty or a hundred years ago.

As part of the Real Grammar series, we’ll be bringing you a variety of blog posts and videos over the coming months. You can also follow this topic using #realgrammar on Twitter and remember that you can find all our earlier blog posts on this topic by using the tags “prescriptivism” or “realgrammar“.

We hope you enjoy this new series!

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Comments (1)
  • The way that words and language are used may be a rapidly evolving field, but real thought should be given to whether these changes should be accepted. Adapting the precise meaning of a word may, in fact, have legal consequences. Would you actually give up a constitutional right because the words in the clause no longer mean what they once did? Yes, language and grammar should be an ever changing and evolving organism, but there are still very good and practical reasons to be cautious with “common usage.”

    Posted by Scott Bloom on 23rd September, 2014
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