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Getting Smarter through Language

Grammar Series | Part 2

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What’s Wrong with (Standard) Grammar?

Conflict between Standard Grammar and Your Internal Grammar

Both grammarians and linguists analyze grammar systematically; however, they approach it differently. While linguists try to understand how people use language to communicate, traditional or standard grammarians focus on how you should use the language. Naturally occurring language does not always match standard grammar, however, which can cause some standard rules and speakers’ internal grammar to be in conflict.

There is nothing really “wrong” with grammar; at times, this is a bit of a tongue-in-cheek lesson. In no way should it be taken to mean that standard grammar plays no useful role or that it should be abandoned. The main purpose is to raise your awareness of issues surrounding standard grammar.

What is Ungrammatical

For a grammarian, it is relatively straightforward to judge whether or not a sentence is grammatical. An ungrammatical sentence does not follow the rules set forth in standard grammar. (Well, even standard grammar has a few points of contention, though, where grammarians disagree among themselves.)

As we saw in the previous lesson, what makes a sentence grammatical is a bit more complicated in modern linguistics. For a linguist, a grammar is a set of rules that speakers use to produce possible sentences in the language.

For a grammarian, “Me and my wife gave them it” has several errors. From a linguistic perspective, the same sentence follows the grammar rules of this variety of English. It has a subject-verb-object word order, it uses mechanisms to show the verb tense, and so on.

Pros and Cons of Standard Grammar

Standard grammar reflects an idealized version of a language. It creates consistency meant to facilitate communication regardless of the speaker’s language variety. Sometimes standard grammar can be so removed from the way speakers use the language that it creates confusion. In addition, some standard grammar rules can be confusing, unintuitive, and difficult to learn. Then standard grammar may create more problems than it is worth.

You have probably been in a situation where you would rather rephrase a sentence than try to figure out how to build it using standard grammar. A standard construction may end up sounding so stilted that you end up abandoning it for something else.

Language changes. Old English, for example, had three grammatical genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter. Nouns were highly inflected so that, depending on its role in a sentence, a noun would take on different endings. No one would seriously think that Modern English is a “corrupted version” of good old Old English.

Nonetheless, as language continues to evolve today, standard grammar has a hard time keeping up. After all, one of the roles of standard grammar is to keep everyone using the same rules. Changes in the language are seen as a corruption of the norms, not as an opportunity for revisions of the rules.

The more resistant to change and the faster the language changes, the more out of sync standard grammar becomes.


Activity 3: Watch What's wrong with (traditional) grammar? on YouTube.

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