On Rules

Grammar rules must ultimately be based on facts about how people speak and write. If they don’t have that basis, they have no basis at all. The rules are supposed to reflect language the way it is, and the people who know it and use it are the final authority on that. And where the people who speak the language distinguish between formal and informal ways of saying the same thing, the rules must describe that variation too. (‘A Student’s Introduction to English Grammar’, Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey Pullum)

A Grammar book does not attempt to teach people how they ought to speak, but on the contrary, unless it is a very bad or a very old work, it merely states how, as a matter of fact, certain people do speak at the time at which it is written. (H. C Wyld, 1925, ‘Elementary Lessons in English Grammar’, p.12. In  ‘Words on Words’ by David and Hilary Crystal)

In the beginning men spake not Latin because such rules were made, but, contrariwise, because men spake Latin the rules were made. That is to say, Latin speech was before the rules, and not the rules before the Latin speech. (John Colet (1511) , in his teacher’s preface to Lily’s Grammar)

They all forced English too rigidly into the mould of Latin, giving many useless rules about the cases, genders and declensions of nouns, the tenses, moods and conjugations of verbs, the government of nouns and verbs, and other things of that kind, which have no bearing on our language, and which confuse and obscure matters instead of elucidating them. (John Wallis (1653), Grammatica Linguae Anglicanae)

It must be allowed that the custom of speaking is the original and only just standard of any language. (Joseph Priestley (1761), The Rudiments of Grammar)

A real rule is one which applies to a particular variety of a language (eg standard English) at a particular point in time, and it may or may not have exceptions. For instance, right now there is a rule which says that the definite article goes before and not after a noun – no exceptions to that. Always ‘the cat’ and never ‘cat the’. (In some languages, definite articles go after the noun, so it is a real feature of English.) There are exceptions to the rule which says ‘add an s  to form a plural noun’, and these are equally rule-bound – the plural of ‘goose’ is ‘geese’ in standard English and never ‘geeses‘. There’s no flexibility in such cases – though of course the situation might change in the future.

It is a different kind of argument when someone, noting that, say, ‘formula’ has two plurals in standard English – ‘formulae’ and ‘formulas’ – applauds one and condemns the other. That is what prescriptivists do, and that is what I am against. (David Crystal

There certainly are rules of grammar that you shouldn’t break, but it does you no good at all to have false beliefs about what the rules are. (Geoffrey Pullum, Language Log)

If ever someone tells you that the rules of English grammar are simple and logical and you should just learn them and obey them, walk away, because you’re getting advice from a fool. (Geoffrey Pullum, Language Log)

Descriptive linguists are often charged with being “liberal” on grammar, as if their goal waslax enforcement or abandonment, while pedants glory in the role of conservative defendersof educational values. But there is nothing conservative about bone-headed ignorance.Linguists love rules; but they care enough to believe there is a fact of the matter aboutwhether a given set of rules is correct. (Geoffrey Pullum,  Times Higher Education no. 1,973 (11 November 2010), p. 56)

English syntax is a deep and interesting subject. It is much too important to be reduced to a bunch of trivial don’t-do-this prescriptions by a pair of idiosyncratic bumblers who can’t even tell when they’ve broken their own misbegotten rules. (Of Strunk and White. Geoffrey Pullum, ’50 Years Of Stupid Language Advice‘, in The Chronicle of Higher Education)

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. (Henry Sweet in 1891)