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23 September 2014
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"Some people don't use proper grammar!"
"To boldly go..."
Why don't the grammar books talk like us?

"Some people just don't use proper grammar!" True or false? by Philippa Law

Whether this claim is true or not really depends on what you mean by 'proper grammar'.

Grammar books will tell you which forms are considered most prestigious (by the person who has written them). A 'grammatical' sentence follows the rules of a language, as detailed by the grammar book. This is known as prescriptive grammar, because it prescribes what you should and should not do.

table top
play audio Listen to our feature on 'correct' English by Viv Perry

Linguists use the word 'grammar' (aka syntax) to describe how speakers of a language put words together to form utterances.
"I am fed up of hearing the use of the word 'an' instead of 'a' on the station. This is inappropriate use of the English language."
- Complaint to BBC
A 'grammatical' sentence follows the underlying rules of a language, as it is spoken by native speakers. This is known as descriptive grammar, because it describes what is actually said.

Linguists also sometimes use the word 'grammar' to refer to absolutely everything stored in your brain about your native language, including the syntax, words, pronunciation, information about different accents, and so on.

You don't need to be taught the (descriptive) grammar of your mother tongue. You automatically acquire the ability to form sentences like those spoken by your peers, according to the underlying rules of that language. Importantly, after reaching a certain level of linguistic maturity (in early childhood), apart from occasional slips of the tongue, you do not spontaneously produce sentences that are ungrammatical, i.e. that do not fit the rules you have acquired.

These sentences, for example, are perfectly possible:

    "Dan and I are going."

    "Me and Dan are going."

    "Dan and me are going."

But these are not:

    "I and Dan are going."

    "Me am going."

In prescriptive grammar only the first option is correct: 'I' is used for the subject of a sentence and 'me' for the object. Where more than one subject is present, 'I' comes last.

The use of Me and Dan/Dan and me is not a mistake, nor does it suggest that this speaker doesn't have rules. It's just that they have two different rules to choose from, depending on the situation they're in.

Some people will have learnt the standard rules, some will have learnt non-standard rules, but the majority of us will have learnt both, and are able to choose which set of rules to employ in particular contexts.

To say that some people don't use grammar is nonsense, since grammar is how you speak. On the other hand, if by using 'proper' grammar you mean always following all the rules laid down in the grammar books, then it would be hard to find anyone who uses 'proper' grammar all the time.


Your Comments
How important are language rules?

Harry from Colchester
too often people seem to get confused by the concept of 'rules' in language. Rules within languages are posited by linguists from observations of their use, and if the language stops adhering to those rules, it's the rules that should change - not the language!

bouaza machkour from Morocco
i really find fascinating when i speak English to my pupils in one of the remote areas in Morocco. they start laughing once they here me speaking british English. This helps me facilitate the process of learning english as a foreign language to them. However, the thing that i don't like about English, particularly as a teacher who tries to be simple as much as he can,the way some words are articulated are absolutely different from what they are written. My pupils keep telling me we cannot write words like cupboard, nose, chalk. In staed of writing, for instance, Nose, they write noze. They stumble all the time, for they undergo the influence of French. If the english grammar is simple, it's pronunciation is very difficult to possess. i'm thinking of speaking English like a native speaker.

Hirra from London
I am born n bred n London and I am told that my grammar is TERRIBLE. I once was talking and my Kenyan freind (who just came from Kenya about a year ago) had 2 correct me on my grammar skills. I didnt realise it until then...but I don't c it as a bad thing. LOL.

Tod from Croydon
How about 'different from', 'different to' and, yes 'different than'. I think the last one is more common in the U.S.A.

Alan Bickley from Wisconsin
Stu from Brighton reiterates the point often made by defenders of what some contributors would call slovenly grammar, usage, or pronunciation; i.e., these departures from the standard or the conventional are signs of vigor. Stu goes on to assert that change in language is a gradual process, presumably one to be welcomed. I deny that such change is gradual in all cases, and I suggest that the employment on cable and broadcast networks of reporters and anchorpersons whose vocabularies are shrunken and who are but faintly in touch with linguistic conventions has produced almost overnight change in language, usually for the worse. Today's example is Charon, the boatman who ferried the souls of the dead across the Styx. Every dictionary that I have consulted prescribes the pronunciation kair-on. And yet when Pluto's moon is declared a candidate for recategorization as a planet every voice from the TV and radio pronounces it sharon. Evidently the astronomers don't know the difference because they have not been heard on the subject. Oddly, this supports what I take to be Stu's belief that the evolution of language comes about through the commission of errors, great and small, which because of widespread ignorance and sloth then become the conventions of a later time.

Find more of your thoughts here.

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