If you are a learner of English you are probably used to the idea of studying grammar rules in order to understand and to apply them to your use of the language. This is a perfectly legitimate, and many would say necessary, way to help your learning. However, as with any set of rules, we must be wary and recognise when those rules help us and when they are needlessly restrictive.
In fact, we should make it clear at this stage that English grammar is not actually a set of rules. It is really a way to describe how we use English, an analysis and categorisation of how we communicate with the language. Language use comes before defined grammar and so should have priority.
In this post I am going to question the sacred text of English grammar from the following viewpoints:
- Historical: from past to present
- Geographical: global English
- Personal and creative
I hope to make the point that language is fluid and constantly reacting to a changing world; that grammar ‘rules’ exist (in learning terms) to help us, not as a rigid authoritarian and consequently as a cause of anxiety.
The historical perspective
I am 41 years old. The idea of what constitutes ‘correct grammar’ for modern English when my parents were my age is quite different from now. Here are some examples:
|Shall / will||‘Shall’ was the ‘correct’ way to express future time in the first and third persons. This usage is now very rare|
|Singular or plural verb after ‘none’||‘None of the books was there’ was considered the correct form. Now the majority of people would use ‘were’|
|‘whom’ or ‘who’||‘Whom’ was considered the correct form when it represented the object of a sentence: ‘that is the man whom you saw’. This word is now extremely rare in spoken English.|
|No preposition at the end of a sentence||‘That is the person to whom I spoke’ was considered correct. Now we would say ‘that’s the person I spoke to’. The other form is now generally considered too formal for spoken English|
|Different(ly) from||‘from’ was always considered the correct choice of preposition to use with ‘different(ly)’. Now you are more likely to hear ‘to’ or ‘than’|
|The split infinitive||To place an adverb between the particle and infinitive form of a verb, as in the famous example from the beginning of every Star Trek episode, ‘to boldly go where no man has gone before’, was considered incorrect. Now, such a judgement might be considered pedantic.|
Interestingly, many of these ‘rules’ are based on traditions of Latin grammar which don’t really apply to the English language. Another example is a tendency to refer to the ‘future tense’ when no such tense exists in English as, in reality, instead of using verb endings as in ‘Latin’ languages we use a combination of present tenses, modal verbs (I will go…, for example) and other phrases to refer to the future.
Another, more modern example, is the use of ‘fewer’ and ‘less’. The following example is considered grammatically incorrect:
Less people attended the convention than expected
The correct form of this would be ‘fewer people…’ as ‘fewer’ is used with countable nouns, like people, while ‘less’ is used with uncountable nouns, like water. A key point in this case is that a very large proportion of native speakers (probably a majority) are likely to make the same mistake with no possibility of meaning being misinterpreted. If this is the case, we have to ask ourselves if this mistake really matters. Perhaps the use of ‘fewer’ will go the way of ‘whom’ as a formal term for written English. Personally, I think it very likely.
With these examples we can see the ‘rules’ of grammar running behind real use. History is a force which changes everything. The English language is no exception to this axiom, whether in terms of how we pronounce the language, which words we select to use or the way we put those words together. Grammar rules should respond to language, not the other way round.
The geographical perspective
Another force which changes language is location. In the case of, for example, North America or Australia, English has developed in different ways as Anglophone groups divide and form distinct cultural groups. In many cases, for example India or Zimbabwe, colonial occupation fused English with local languages, customs and culture to produce a wide variation in use of English.
An example between English as spoken in the UK and the USA is the use of the present perfect. In the UK one would ask a child:
‘Have you done your homework, yet?’
Whereas, in the USA you are just as likely to hear:
‘Did you do your homework, yet?’
So, Americans in conversation use the present perfect or past simple interchangeably when referring to past events from a present viewpoint.
Another example is from Indian English:
‘I am having a cold’
As opposed to UK English:
‘I have a cold’
This demonstrates the preferred use of the continuous tenses by Indian English speakers reflecting grammatical structures from other languages, such as Hindi, from other parts of their culture.
The point here is that if you have been learning English you may have been presented with ‘hard facts’ concerning grammar or, if not, you may have asked for them. You may learn English perfectly ‘by the rules’, but it is then highly likely you will encounter native speakers who break those rules. The fundamental thing here is that the most important aspect of speaking a global language is intelligibility. There are many ways of speaking English, but it is highly problematic to claim that a particular way is incorrect when a group of people are successfully using that ‘incorrect’ form to communicate meaning.
A common hope concerning English is that a generalised Standard English will emerge to ensure intelligibility at a global level. In fact, that process is already happening as global communication technology and migration mix different forms of English together in a huge variety of locations, social groups and age groups. The more that process continues, the more ‘prestige’ versions of English, such as those found in the UK and the USA become just another dialect of ‘World English’.
Each of these ways of speaking English has its own grammar, and of course a learner should learn according to the ‘English’ they choose to learn. But they should not imagine that theirs is the only set of rules available, or that native speakers don’t make the ‘mistakes’ that their coursebooks tell them to avoid!
The personal perspective
English is a playful language. It is open to adaptation and interpretation in a way that has been fully exploited by authors such as James Joyce (Ulysses), George Orwell (1984) and Anthony Burgess (A Clockwork Orange). Neologisms (new words) have never been as frequent as they are in today’s media and technology-driven environment. Just as common are ‘nonce’ words, which are words created by an individual to serve a temporary need. An example is an overheard conversation where a person described excess water on a road as a fluddle (a combination of ‘flood’ and ‘puddle’, with a possible hint of ‘muddle’). This is a matter of using English in a creative and personal way which can be extended into more ‘grammatical’ areas.
An example of this is using nouns as verbs. In football it’s possible to say ‘he headed the ball into the goal’. By extension we can use other parts of the body to score a goal:
He elbowed the ball into the goal
He kneed the ball into the goal
He ankled the ball into the goal
He backed the ball into the goal…
We might also adopt an adjective as a noun as in the modern expression ‘my bad’, meaning ‘my mistake’ in an ‘ungrammatical’ but entirely intelligible way. In this example someone at some time has used this expression, either originating in or finding its way into mass media and it has now become common currency.
We also use prepositions combined with verbs, adjectives and nouns, in the manner of phrasal verbs, but in a way which is personalised and often temporary. For example, in 2003 the British TV chef Delia Smith claimed to be ‘all reciped out’. This is not a grammatically or lexically recognised form but all her listeners knew that she meant she had exhausted her stock of recipes. However, this phrase did not become standard in any way and can therefore be considered personally creative.
Sometimes we make decisions on the use of grammar which are based on style or the way the words sound to us. For example, a standard rule in English coursebooks is that the comparative form of one-syllable adjectives ends in –er and that adjectives of two syllables (barring those ending in ‘y’) or more should be preceded by the modifier ‘more’ . However, we tend to say ‘more fun’, as ‘funner’ does not sound right, in the same way as we say ‘cleverer’ as ‘more clever’ is just not right somehow. Similarly we should say:
Breaking grammar rules is more common than you think
But if you listen carefully to a native speaker you are just as likely to hear:
Breaking grammar rules is commoner than you think
So, we might conclude from this that in some cases our preferences as speakers of English take precedence over the fixed ‘rules’ giving us a great deal of variation of language use.
As a last example of the personalised and creative take on grammar, here is an advertising slogan from a well-known fast food chain:
I’m lovin’ it
A coursebook would probably tell you that ‘love’ is a stative verb and should not be used in the continuous aspect (…ing form). However, this slogan does just that and communicates its meaning very clearly with an added feeling of the immediacy of experiencing something in the moment. Again, this particular transgression has become common in spoken English, leading us to wonder if the grammar is wrong, or the people using the language to successfully communicate (split infinitive!) meaning are wrong. The answer surely has to be that the grammar ‘rule’ is wrong, or that it simply hasn’t caught up with the language use it is intended to explain.
Perhaps the key point here is that English belongs to the people who use it, whether native speaker or speaker of English as a foreign language, not to a ‘higher authority’. Once we have covered the need to be intelligible to the people we are speaking to we have a freedom to express ourselves, that may begin with a learner taking a more relaxed attitude to grammar rules and end with a verbally inventive masterpiece like Joyce’s Ulysses, which conforms to few linguistic norms but succeeds in communicating an extraordinary amount of information.
With just a few examples we have seen how English grammar, like any set of rules, can lag behind the flexible and ever-changing communication system that it represents. It is tempting, from a learner’s perspective, to count on grammar rules as the ultimate authority which will never let us down, but this attitude can also be a source of anxiety which can limit learning and distract from the true objective of becoming a successful communicator of meaning. Grammar can be a useful framework for understanding and making progress in language learning, but it is not the divine word. If you study English in a class you will probably be used to hearing your teacher say ‘yes, that is the rule, but…’. There are many, very good reasons for that ‘but’.