Breaking the “Rules” of Grammar

“Ther nas no man nowher so vertuous.”  –Chaucer, The Friar’s Tale.  Uses a double negative.

For this was gret unkyndenesse, to this manere treten there brother.  –John Wycliff.  Splits an infinitive.

“And God saw that it was good.”  –The King James Bible.  Starts a sentence with a conjunction.

“[Let] nothing [be done] through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves.”  –The King James Bible.  Uses “themselves” as a singular pronoun.

“The smallest worm will turn being trodden on.”  –William Shakespeare, Henry VI.  Ends in a preposition.

“There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me / As if I were their well-acquainted friend”  –William Shakespeare, A Comedy of Errors.  Uses “their” as a singular pronoun.

“Who wouldst thou serve?”  — William Shakespeare, King Lear  Doesn’t use “whom.”

“Nor never none Shall mistress of it be, save I alone.”  –William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night.  Uses a double negative.

“To boldly go where no man has gone before.”  –opening sequence to Star Trek.  Splits an infinitive.

“The President was shot.”  –A reporter in Dallas on November 22, 1963.  Uses passive voice.

…if a peace officer has reasonable grounds to believe that, because of their physical condition, a person may be incapable of providing a breath sample…  –from a 2008 amendment to the Canadian Criminal Code.  Uses “they” as a gender-neutral singular pronoun.

“The adjective hasn’t been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place.”  –Strunk and White, The Elements of Style.  Uses passive voice, does not group related words together, and contains a relative clause.

In the books The Best American Essays of 2001 and The Best American Essays of 2003, all but four of fifty essayists used at least once sentence fragment, with the average being ten per essay.

Is this the downfall of The English language?  Hardly.

First off, let’s get something straight.  There is no The English Language.  There is English language.  There is English language as spoken by an uneducated native of Minnesota, and English language as spoken by a doctor from Australia.  There is English language as spoken by a East-End Londoner, and English language as spoken by an upper-class Bostonian.  English is living, and because it is living, it changes, has different pronunciations, different spellings, and… different grammars.

A “grammar” is that part of language which allows its users to make sense of it.  Don’t get me wrong, grammar is important.  But it’s important in terms of meaning and in terms of ethos (credibility), not in terms of some set of “rules” that seperate The English Language from imposters.

There’s a difference between “Let’s eat, Grandpa!” and “Let’s eat Grandpa!”  But that difference is in terms of meaning.  There’s a difference between “I went to the store” and “a wnet 2 te stor.”  But that difference is in terms of credibility, of getting your audience to take you seriously.  When you break a grammatical “rule” for dramatic effect, or to enhance meaning, why should the “rule” take precedence over the original purpose of writing–communication?

“When making choices between formally grammatical sentences and rhetorically effective sentences, good writers often chose the latter.”  –Edgar H. Schuster, “Beyond Grammar: The Richness of English Language, or the Zero-Tolerance Approach to Rigid Rules.”  English Journal 100.4 (2011): 71-76.

Many of our grammar “rules” are quite artificial, made up sometimes out of whole cloth by English teachers or by ministers concerned that “bad English” leads to moral decay.  A particularly infamous case is Robert Lowth, a clergyman who in 1762 wrote a grammar guide that told us for the first time that it was wrong to end a sentence with a preposition.  (It was a rule he borrowed from Latin; it has no basis in English.)  His guide caught on among the upper classes, and soon “good grammar” became a marker of class distinction.

It was entirely artificial.  He didn’t make rules based on how people already spoke: he made rules based on how he thought people should speak, and people began to socially enforce them.


(The Grammar Nazi Flag.)

“…in America, these rules of grammar underlie what has been termed “standard American English,” but as in other countries, this is really just the speech of those who wield the most power, in this case, those who are white, educated, professional, middle- and upper-class. What I hope you see is that there is nothing “natural” about these rules of grammar or our feelings about them: they are every bit as much a cultural construct as a building, a painting, a computer, or a sonnet.”  –Karl Tamburr, “Why Shakespeare Didn’t Know Grammar.”

In the end, English is a living language–the language of government and commerce, of conversation and communication, for millions of people.  And because it is living, it will change.  And all the dictionaries and grammar rulebooks in the world cannot hold back the tide.  Only dead languages stay the same.

If English didn’t change, wé wolde bespricen Englisc angelícan þes.

Some “errors,” such as the gender-neutral singular they or the definition of “nauseous” as meaning one feels like one will vomit, are already in widespread popular use.  Because they are in widespread popular use, they eventually must be recognized in dictionaries and grammar rulebooks, or else those books will cease to be useful to the population.  (Already, look at the entry for “nauseous”: its backwards-formation meaning is its first definition, while the original meaning is now its second definition.)  Countless “wrong” words have already been added to our language this way, and are now considered correct, such as “diagnose.”

Learning to write effectively is not necessarily synonymous with learning to write according to the “rules” of standardized English.  The Dalai Lama once said, “Know the rules well, so you can break them effectively.”  That is the approach I think English users should have towards “good” grammar.  It’s not a bad thing to know how to speak and write in standardized English.  (I’m building a career around that premise, in fact.)  It’s the sad fact that in certain rhetorical situations, people will not give you a hearing if you do not have a mastery of standardized English.  However, do not mistake this for meaning that standardized English is the “right” English.  It may be the wrong thing to use in another rhetorical situation.  (You wouldn’t ask a biker in a rough bar, “Pardon me, but would you be so kind as to pass me that napkin,” would you?)  Effective writers size up their rhetorical situation, and choose the form of English that will best accomplish their purpose in writing (to persuade, to inform, to entertain).

So learn the “rules,” by all means.  But know when it’s time to toss some of them out the window.

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