An eNewsletter Dedicated to Helping Businesspeople Write Smarter and Faster in Plain Language
Where Do English Grammar Rules Come From?
If after reading the above headline you think, “Hey, you just broke a rule! You can’t end a sentence with a preposition!” Then think again. The Chicago Manual of Style and plenty of other writing guides point out that ending a sentence with a preposition is grammatically correct and has been for centuries. So where did the “never end a sentence with a preposition” rule come from? Latin grammar. Back in the late 1700s, when English grammar rules were being codified and taught to the masses, some experts applied Latin grammar rules to English in order to “improve the language.” But (I’m pointing out the obvious here) English is not Latin. However, this Latin rule about prepositions crept into a few style guides and, hence, it was taught in English classes for a long, long time.
So Who Gets to Make Up the Rules?
The following article (edited for length), “Who Gets to Decide What Proper Usage and Grammar Is?” by John Prager, is a pretty good answer to that question, and summarizes the current thinking regarding the source of English grammar rules:
In America, we have a proud and defiant tradition of resisting authority. It’s not at all obvious that you should obey the instructions of some “cranky grammarian” just because they have a regular forum for their views. In fact, this question—“Who gets to decide about grammar?”—has been the center of the target in a long-standing dispute about language: the conflict between prescriptivism and descriptivism. This struggle is mostly waged in academic halls, but now and then, it engages public attention, often when dictionaries issue new editions.
- Descriptivists argue that dictionaries and grammar guides should collect the way the people actually use words, without making judgments about correctness. In their view, it’s perfectly okay—valuable, even—for a dictionary to include the word ain’t, or to add the latest popular Internet slang, or to say that one meaning of the word literally is “figuratively or metaphorically,” because those are all examples of how English is truly used. In summary: English is a living language that constantly changes, and we must adapt to today’s words, meanings, and grammar.
- Prescriptivists believe that dictionaries and other reference works have an obligation to mark the acknowledged boundaries of English by pointing out when usage isn’t considered standard. Sure, prescriptivists say, languages change over time, but if something is not yet fully accepted as conventional English, it’s important to tell potential users that a word may be obsolete; limited to a region, dialect, or subculture; slang; or roundly rejected by a panel of usage experts.
Steps Beyond the Dictionary
Every dictionary will express its editor’s viewpoint on the prescriptivism vs. descriptivism debate. But English is more than the static word lists trapped in dictionaries. For grammar and usage, the equivalent references are the stylebooks maintained by various publishing organizations. Many newspapers, for instance, follow the rules of the Associated Press Stylebook. The University of Chicago publishes The Chicago Manual of Style, which is widely used in the book publishing industry. Many academic papers follow the rules established by the Modern Language Association (MLA). I’ve always been partial to the U.S. Government Printing Office Style Manual.
You know what? Each of these stylebooks flatly contradicts all the others at one point or another. And yet the editors of each stylebook can cite a long list of historical examples to show that esteemed authors preferred the usage rules their book favors. We have a case of many emperors issuing contradictory laws: the result is anarchy.
Does the English Language Exist?
So, what does it mean when the very best experts we can find can’t agree on how words should be defined and used? I think that we can draw three important conclusions:
- There’s no such thing as definitive English. No one individual has the exclusive right to determine what is or is not good grammar and usage.
- Nevertheless, chaos does not rule. Most people who have made a serious study of English will agree on the rules of grammar most of the time. You can make an analogy with a map of a partially explored land. Some of the borderlands may be fuzzy, but there really is a discrete English language that is our common heritage.
- In the end, English belongs to its users. If you’re a writer with a special fondness for run-on sentences, then you’re free to use them and to garner support from other writers. Perhaps you’ll be so persuasive that run-ons will become conventional English usage a generation from now. Perhaps you’ll be dismissed as a crackpot. But it’s your language, your freedom of expression, and your opportunity to try to rewrite the rules.
- Canada’s special postal code for letters addressed to Santa is H0H 0H0.
- Home Alone is the highest-grossing Christmas movie of all time: $285.7 million.
- An average of 15,000 Americans visit hospital emergency rooms each November and December due to holiday-related decorating accidents.
- Noel (upper case n) means Christmas. The same word with a lower-case n means a Christmas carol. It comes from the Latin word natal which means birth.
- Poinsettias didn’t become a popular Christmas plant until 1920. This native shrub of Western Mexico was named after botanist Joel Poinsett, first U.S. ambassador to Mexico in the 1820s.
- Saint Nicholas was born in which modern-day country: England, Turkey, Germany, Israel? (Trivia Answer: scroll to the bottom)
Word of the Month
halcyon | HAL-see-un | adjective
1: peaceful, happy, prosperous
“Keith yearned for the halcyon days before the merger when no expense was spared on the company Christmas party.”
Wacky & Wise Websites
Click here to visit a fun Christmas holiday site with recipes, games, a Disco Dancing Santa, and lots more.
Click here to check out unique Christmas gifts.
American Express, Amgen, Cisco Systems, Department of the Navy, Fluor Corporation, General Electric, Motorola, The New York Public Library, Procter & Gamble, SEAL Team Six, State of Utah, Supreme Court of Virginia, United Way, U.S. Census Bureau, U.S. Food & Drug Administration
Writing Tips & More
Now that you’ve read the newsletter, go to the menu bar at the top of this page and check out the rest of our website. Click on Blog to see more writing tips, fun writing facts, and Words of the Week.
Subscribe to Writing Tips now!
SATisfy Your Curiosity
SAT Exam practice question: Choose the words that, when inserted in the sentence, best fit the meaning of the sentence as a whole.
“Laboratories have been warned that provisions for animal protection that in the past were merely ___ will now be mandatory; ___ of this policy will lose their federal research grants.”
STATUE : SCULPTOR
(SAT Answer: Scroll to the bottom.)
The word denim comes from the French phrase serge de Nîmes, or serge from Nîmes, a town in Southern France that first made the material. The phrase, de Nîmes, was shortened into the modern denim and appeared in The Merchant’s Magazine of 1695: “Serge Denims that cost 6l. each.” Jeans also takes its name from a city in Europe: Genoa, Italy. Genoa comes from the Old French, Jannes, and the earliest English reference to Genoa as Jean is in 1495 in the Naval Accounts and Inventories of the Reign of Henry VII. Jeans, as we know it today, is derived from the French phrase jene fustian, meaning a type of twilled, cotton cloth made in Genoa.
Answer: recommended…violators. In the sentence, the word merely indicates that the past provisions were not as strict as the mandatory provisions, and recommended is the only first term that conveys a lesser degree of strictness. Only violators could logically be penalized by losing their federal research grants.
Fun Facts Answer
St. Nicholas was born circa 280 A.D. in Patara, Lycia, an area that is part of present-day Turkey. He lost both of his parents as a young man and reportedly used his large inheritance to help the poor and sick. One story about St. Nicholas tells how the father of three daughters did not have enough money to pay their dowries, and so he thought of selling his girls into servitude. Three times, St. Nicholas secretly went to their house at night and put a bag of money inside. After his death, the legend of his gift-giving grew. Over the years, St. Nicholas transformed into Santa Claus, who brings Christmas presents at night to children around the world.