Rules of Grammar
“Her English is too good,” he said. “That clearly indicates that she is foreign.” Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady was identifiable as an impostor because her speech followed the rules too closely. Is that because even well-educated native speakers aren’t educated enough? Or are some “rules” the real impostors?
Latin and logic, not usage, underlie the rules in Robert Lowth’s A Short Introduction to English Grammar (1762) and Lindley Murray’s English Grammar (1795). Lowth’s and Murray’s books were reprinted for decades, carving their biases into stone. Double negatives, prepositions at the end of sentences, and split infinitives became wrong because grammarians said they were wrong.
Grammar does matter—when it rests on usage and clarity. Good language communicates clearly and unobtrusively to a literate native speaker. Double negatives have appropriately disappeared from standard English not because they violate mathematical logic—language isn’t math—but because they create confusion. (Does “I don’t want to do nothing today” mean I want to be idle or busy?) On the other hand, “Who should I give it to?” is as clear as, and less jarring than, “To whom should I give it?” Insisting on “To whom” has no value except snob appeal.
7/18/2016 08:35:27 am
I have learned so much from working with professional editors for over 20 years. Do you think other languages have stricter or looser grammar rules?
Great question, Lisa. If you mean "grammar rules" in a descriptive sense, telling how the language works (the rules you'd want to learn to speak or write like a native), all languages have them and many, like Navajo, are far more complicated than English. As for rules in the prescriptive sense, what the rule-givers say SHOULD be instead of what IS, I'm not aware of other languages that have these besides English and French. (The Académie française tries to standardize everything about the French language.) Most (all?) languages evolve over time; "strict" or "loose" is a matter of how hard a supposed linguistic authority resists the changes.
7/18/2016 12:14:59 pm
Well, I for one can think of certain instances where one would want to use the statement (or one much like it), "To whom SHALL I give it then?" (insert eye roll here...)
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I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.