Rules

I happen to have drafted the following before John McIntyre posted a typically trenchant piece about rules on his blog. I hope the following will act as a complement (and as a compliment).

The term grammar rules is freely used and often without much thought about what it might mean. Typically it is used as a kind of guide to linguistic good manners. As Harry Ritchie writes in ‘English for the Natives’, grammar itself is assumed to be:

. . . a weird combination of finicky word usage and obscure social etiquette, like knowing how to address a viscount or where to place the sorbet spoons. The whole nebulous subject presided over by stern, scary men, who write books telling us we always get things wrong: ‘One should, of course, say “It is I, your viscountness”. All other forms are grievous errors. Sorbet spoons to the immediate left of fish-knives.’

Those who take such a view are reluctant to tell us where the rules come from, presumably because they don’t know. Those of us who have taken just a little more than cursory glance at the subject know that grammar rules describe how a language works, much as the laws of physics describe how the universe works. Newton didn’t make it up when he claimed that:

An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.

He based his statement on what he had observed. Similarly, if we notice that verbs like might, shall and can behave in a certain way, we can conclude certain things about them: they are are invariable, they form their interrogatives by inversion, and they are followed by an infinitive which is not preceded by the particle to. If we see that a word that takes its meaning from a second word in the same sentence cannot come before that second word if that second word is inside a subordinate clause, we can conclude, as the linguist Lanacker did in 1969, that there is a rule of English grammar that states that an anaphor may not both precede and command its antecedent.

By contrast, there is no rule that prevents us from ending sentences with a preposition, using they to refer to just one person, placing an adjunct between to and the verb or using coordinated I as the complement of a preposition. Native English speakers do these things all the time, and have done so for centuries. To say that they speak or write ungrammatically in doing so is as ludicrous as if Newton had said that an object at rest SHOULDN’T stay at rest and an object in motion SHOULDN’T stay in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.

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10 Comments

Filed under English Language, Language

10 responses to “Rules

  1. That’s all true, as is the McIntyre piece. What I’m genuinely curious about is whether the A Level English Language exam (which didn’t exist in my youth) expects the pedantic rules, and marks students down. Because if they do, it’s not something to put up with.

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    • It didn’t exist in mine either, so I’m not really qualified to say, but if the teaching of English in the UK is still driven by political considerations, as seems to be the case, then that is most unfortunate.

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  2. I’ve long struggled to find the right words for this, and it’s addressed to a set of arguments I’ve seen in many places:

    It seems to me that reading and listening is as much a part of language as is speaking and writing. It’s fine to correct the _labeling_ of critics when they erroneously say “that’s not a word” or “that breaks a rule.” But it seems to me that there are lots of well-known usage elements that a large number of people believe to be wrong, and these negative reactions seem to me to be just like the same “laws of physics” put forth as a metaphor for the study of speech and writing. It’s perfectly reasonable to say “the way we study language scientifically, we don’t consider the principles you believe in to be ‘rules.'” But if you treat language as an empirical science, then all those complaints constitute empirical observations of how language works, and it seems to me unscientific to attempt to argue against the critics’ negative reactions on the basis of the “rules” being false. It seems to me that a negative reaction to an element of usage is exactly symmetrical to the usage itself. It can be observed, but it shouldn’t be judged. (And again, that doesn’t mean that the critics are right in how they _label_ these language elements. Just that the negative reactions themselves seem to me to be empirical phenomena that shouldn’t be judged or countered.)

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    • I can only add the words of Henry Sweet, writing at the end of the nineteenth century:

      ‘In considering the use of grammar as a corrective of what are called “ungrammatical” expressions, it must be borne in mind that the rules of grammar have no value except as statements of facts: whatever is in general use in a language is for that very reason grammatically correct.’

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      • I don’t dispute that at all. The misguided carping doesn’t represent true “rules” of grammar that in any way constrain the use of language by anybody else. Nevertheless, the fact that there are these well-known beliefs that certain formulations are objectionable is an empirical observation about the language. These beliefs affect the way some people are taught the language, and how some words get edited. The beliefs are widespread enough that they are a frequent topic of conversation in popular writing about language. I can understand the criticism that the objections fallaciously cite nonexistent rules and falsely claim the non-existence of words. But once the labeling issue is set aside, I’m surprised that the negative reactions to these well-known usage elements are not studied as empirical phenomena, but rather are disputed and discouraged.

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        • I examine some of these points in my series of posts on the Negative Canon.

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        • I’m surprised that the negative reactions to these well-known usage elements are not studied as empirical phenomena, but rather are disputed and discouraged.

          Well, they are empirical phenomena all right, but not about the language. It’s an empirical fact that some people believe the Earth is flat, but this is not interesting to geologists. It’s probably not even interesting to psychologists except perhaps as a particular case of something – not being a psychologist, I don’t know just what.

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  3. Keith Stringer

    In general I like the discipline of grammar. However the only purpose of it is to standardise in a limited fashion so we ALL understand each other. I don’t see this fundamental and purpose of language discussed above.

    Liked by 1 person

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