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.
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.
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.
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’]”
“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.