Dear Pedants: Your Fave Grammar Rule is Probably Fake

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Chi Luu

Chi Luu is a peripatetic linguist who speaks Australian English and studies dead languages. Every two weeks, she’ll uncover curious stories about language from around the globe for Lingua Obscura.

This isn’t a new story but it is one that refuses to die. The thorny question of what constitutes ‘correct’ grammar in English seems to have a cyclical life, aided and abetted by new generations of enthusiastic grammarians.

It’s great that so many people are engaged with their own language, but we sure can be judgmental about it. No other subject seems to make us feel quite so insecure (or on the flip side, overly superior) about something which really belongs to us all—the way we naturally speak our native language.

To boldly split an infinitive, to make less (or fewer) mistakes ending in prepositions than others are wont to – these so-called ‘crimes’ against proper language use have been repeatedly cited as obvious evidence of (other people’s) stupidity and lack of education, amongst other, weightier moral judgements. Passionate reactions range from simply getting “annoyed”, “cringing” to “making my blood boil” according to public comments made to the BBC, erstwhile bastion of good English.

What’s going on here? How is it that so many people, innocently speaking their own native tongue from birth, are accused of using it incorrectly? Is this really an epidemic of biblical hyperbole, signifying the death of the English language in these sadly degenerate modern times? Are we all going to start txt-speaking 2 each other in the last throes of its life??

On closer inspection, it seems the English language has been dying in fits and starts for hundreds of years, simply through its own evolution. Linguists would agree that there is a socially accepted standard dialect that rules much of the mainstream, literate world of the Anglosphere.

It is indeed important to learn the accepted linguistic conventions of the standard dialect for reasons of communication, clarity and even persuasive style. But it happens to be a historically privileged dialect.

It is indeed important to learn the accepted linguistic conventions of the standard dialect for reasons of communication, clarity and even persuasive style. But it happens to be a historically privileged dialect and is not inherently linguistically better than other, non-standard dialects of English. Even if you don’t buy this linguistic fact, like all dialects, even ones you may perceive to be ungrammatical, there are rules which reflect how speakers actually use the language. These rules are not formed by some invisible authority on high, never to be questioned, ever.

These are “the modern truths about language: language changes constantly; change is normal; spoken language is the language; correctness rests upon usage; all usage is relative.” Ultimately native speakers are the ones who decide what is standard language, based on their own accepted use. There are conventional styles and discourse registers that are appropriate in some contexts and not others. Most people have a linguistic hobby horse or two (I have a whole stable of them myself) and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that—as long as we acknowledge that often these conventions are subjective and not forever fixed universal rules of language that define a person’s intelligence. In the same way, you may also find skinny jeans problematic as an item of fashion but plenty of people are still definitely wearing them as pants.

Along with existing linguistic conventions that reflect how speakers talk, that may change as the language evolves, it might surprise you to know there are also these so-called ‘make believe grammar’ rules—those rules that do not reflect exactly how the standard dialect is used, yet continue to be taught some hundreds of years after their invention.

What of those grammar rules that were entirely dreamt up in an age of moral prescriptivism, reflecting nothing of historical or literary usage, to encourage the poor English language to be more like an entirely different (and entirely dead) language, namely Latin? Wait, which rules are those? It seems pretty crazy but the popular grammar rules familiar to most of us may in fact be completely fake and have no basis in linguistic reality. The English language didn’t change to make those rules obsolete, they were simply fictional from the start.

In 1909, Gertrude Buck’s paper ‘Make Believe Grammar’ stated that “nearly all of our so-called English grammar is mere make-believe grammar. […] Our early grammarians, we allege, turned away their eyes from the facts of English speech and gave us rules drawn by analogy from the usages of the Latin tongue. […] the old fashioned dogmatism of grammarians as to how people “ought” to speak is too commonly based on ignorance of the idiomatic peculiarities of our own language, of the past history of certain forms, or of present customs of speech outside a very limited circle”. Nevertheless, Buck optimistically believed that “‘make-believe grammar’ of the type so far discussed in this paper has fallen into disrepute. There seems little room for doubt that it will eventually, and at no remote period, be superseded in every detail by a grammar which bases itself unequivocally upon the facts of the English tongue as English.”

One hundred years later, a fairly remote period I’d say, it seems little has changed.

They’re totally made up grammar myths, that somehow gained a superficial, high prestige status among the public and are repeated as fact ad nauseam.

Here are the plain facts: many of these pop grammar rules, that are still seriously taught in schools and universities and even promoted (and inevitably violated) in style guides, were magically pulled out of thin air by a handful of 18th and 19th century prescriptive grammarians. They’re totally made up grammar myths, that somehow gained a superficial, high prestige status among the public and are repeated as fact ad nauseam. Often these rules were modeled on an aspect of Latin, perceived to be a more ‘pure’ language than English, and went against actual historical and literary usage. In many cases the rules made communication more stilted and less clear (and promoted humorous syntactic constructions up with which I will not put). Some rules may even have started as merely an offhand expression of an individual grammarian’s opinion, before it somehow became ensconced in the public consciousness as a hard and fast grammar rule. The split infinitive, not ending a sentence with a preposition, the ongoing confusion with less vs fewer or use of the singular they are all examples of rules that had shaky linguistic foundations to begin with.

Take the case of the split infinitive—there are numerous examples where not splitting the infinitive changes the meaning, or makes it more ambiguous, which really defeats the purpose of a grammar or style rule meant to make communication clearer, as this post shows:

You really have to watch him. [i.e. ‘It’s important that you watch him’]

doesn’t have quite the same meaning as:

You have to really watch him. [i.e. ‘You have to watch him very closely’]”

In this example from Arnold Zwicky of Language Log, it’s even obligatory to split the infinitive as putting the adjunct outside the infinitive construction would render the sentence completely ungrammatical:

“We expect it to more than double.”/*We expect it more than to double./*We expect it to double more than.”

That doesn’t mean that all infinitives strictly have to be split whenever you may find them, no matter how awkwardly, just that it is a naturally occurring construction that can used without fear or moral panic, depending on the linguistic context.

What’s the evidence that these rules are all hot air, besides the above examples? Who are we supposed to believe, if we can’t believe what we’ve been taught? If regular English speakers are regarded as not competent enough to determine what is ‘correct’ usage in their own language, who would be a better authority?

It turns out, virtually all authoritative sources agree these rules are nonsense. 

It turns out, virtually all authoritative sources agree these rules are nonsense. We can consider the authority of historical texts before the advent of these pop grammar rules. Does historical record show that speakers were breaking these rules before they even existed? Yes. Or we can appeal to literary usage by expert wielders of the English language such as Chaucer, Shakespeare, Austen, James Joyce, Mark Twain to name just a few. They’ve all had their fair share of grammatical ‘errors’. There are examples throughout the history of the English language of many of these grammar rules being blithely broken by speakers. Even the style guides of contemporary publications such as The Economist admit that “Happy the man who has never been told that it is wrong to split an infinitive: the ban is pointless. Unfortunately, to see it broken is so annoying to so many people that you should observe it.” Or as Geoffrey K. Pullum wryly translates it “this mythical and pointless prohibition against a natural syntactic construction has never been defended by any serious grammarian; but observe it anyway, because we’re scared of our readers.”

If you don’t believe the historical or literary data or style guides, perhaps a better authority would be the many linguists and grammarians, like Steven Pinker or Geoffrey K. Pullum, author of the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, who have studied these prescriptive grammar rules using real language data. Or statisical corpora analysis which looks at the frequency of these grammatical constructions in even the most formal of publications. All of these sources have reached an uncontroversial consensus about the folk grammar rules that are still in heavy rotation today and that is they are frequently broken by respected sources. What on earth are these rules describing then? It seems these sources are not cheekily ‘breaking’ these never to be broken grammar rules, but simply using English correctly. Whether or not these invented rules ever had a place in the language, whether they ever described actual usage by speakers, they certainly do not really tell us how the English language is being used today.

What we have here is a contemporary situation in which most serious researchers agree on certain facts and trends, based on observable data over time, yet some persist in perpetuating an unsubstantiated myth from the last century. Blindly railing against these fictional grammatical horrors is beginning to look a lot like language change denial.

Despite historical data, despite high prestige literary usage, despite contemporary linguistic evidence, it seems we haven’t really advanced much. If we are no longer hampered by the Victorian era’s moral trends, whether in restrictive fashion or in civil rights, why are we still submitting to its made up language rules? The world has moved on. So should we.


JSTOR Citations

Josephine Turck Baker, "Correct English," and the Ancestry of Pop Grammar

By: Christopher Gould

The English Journal, Vol. 76, No. 1 (Jan., 1987), pp. 22-27

National Council of Teachers of English

The Perils of Prescriptivism: Usage Notes and The American Heritage Dictionary

By: John Ottenhoff

American Speech, Vol. 71, No. 3 (Autumn, 1996), pp. 272-284

Duke University Press

Says Who? Teaching and Questioning the Rules of Grammar

By: Anne Curzan

PMLA, Vol. 124, No. 3 (May, 2009), pp. 870-879

Modern Language Association

"Make-Believe Grammar"

By: Gertrude Buck

The School Review, Vol. 17, No. 1 (Jan., 1909), pp. 21-33

The University of Chicago Press

Androcentrism in Prescriptive Grammar: Singular 'They', Sex-Indefinite 'He', and 'He or She'

By: Ann Bodine

Language in Society, Vol. 4, No. 2 (Aug., 1975), pp. 129-146

Cambridge University Press

On the Separation, by a Word or Words, of to and the Infinitive Mood

By: Fitzedward Hall

The American Journal of Philology, Vol. 3, No. 9 (1882), pp. 17-24

The Johns Hopkins University Press

Chi Luu

Chi Luu is a computational linguist and NLP researcher who tinkers with tiny models and machines to uncover curious mysteries in human language. She has advanced degrees in Theoretical Linguistics and Literature, with a morbid focus on dead and dying languages. She has worked on dictionaries, multi-language search engines, and question answering applications.

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