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

Why don't the grammar books talk like us?

For English, the story of standardisation begins in the 17th century, when the language began to be used widely in publication. Prior to that, Latin had been the language of academic writing and literature. Writing serious literature in English would have been like reading the news in a clown costume. But following a few English translations of the Bible and other prestigious books, English grew in status and became the language of education.

In order to be able to print books to be used across the country, a widely intelligible Standard English had to be settled upon. Essentially the choice was arbitrary - it was only luck that those particular features of speech were considered prestigious at that particular time.

Immediately, codified English could not hope to incorporate all the innumerable dialects and differences of speech betwen the classes. The point of codified English was to avoid that variation.

Any codified English, being just one kind of English, would never be able to account for different styles and registers either. The trouble with saying "You must do this... Don't do that..." is that nobody has just one way of speaking. Suggesting that only Standard English forms are correct is like saying that you shouldn't differentiate between formal and informal situations.

Having a Standard English meant people needed to know what that standard form was.

Suggesting that only Standard English forms are correct is like saying that you shouldn't differentiate between formal and informal situations.
Over the 18th and 19th centuries, a number of dictionaries and prescriptive grammars were published, detailing the rules that described the dialect. Since the existing model for standardised language was Latin, some of these rules were based on a description of what was or was not possible in Latin.

The 'no split infinitives' rule, for example, arises from English being compared to Latin - whose infinitives aren't splittable. (An example of splitting an infinitive in Latin would be the equivalent of: "I'm just going to extri-gently-cate this chewing gum from your hair"). The rule is not appropriate in English for the simple reason that English is not Latin! The same goes for the "you shouldn't end a sentence with a preposition" rule (or "you shouldn't use a preposition to end a sentence with" as some prefer to say!)

Codifying the English language has been of huge benefit to English speakers; it has given people the means to communicate with each other across dialectal barriers. We shouldn't, however, expect the grammar books to provide an accurate reflection of real speech. And, whatever the prescriptivists may say, we should not feel inadequate if real speech does not fit the grammar books' expectations.

Find out more
Article by Elan Dresher about the future of linguistics.


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