Guest Contributors: Lawrence Barkley and Christine Sandoval, authors of Grammar and Usage, Naturally, 1st Edition
Grammar rules have long been the bane of many students at all levels of education, teachers intoning “Don’t end a sentence with a preposition,” “Don’t begin a sentence with a coordinating conjunction,” “Don’t split infinitives,” “Be sure pronouns and their antecedents agree in number,” “Don’t use passive voice,” and “Don’t begin a sentence with ‘There’.”
But how many of the numerous grammar rules we learned, use, and teach are actually based on a syntactic logic? Not many. In fact, a number of grammar rules as we know them today were never actually initially fashioned as rules, as any number of sources will attest¹. For example, in his 1864 The Queen’s English: Stray Notes on Speaking and Spelling, Henry Alford’s note #238 reads, in part,
A correspondent . . . . gives as an instance, ‘to scientifically illustrate.’ . . . . It seems to me, that we ever regard the to of the infinitive as inseparable from its verb. And when we have a choice between two forms of expression, ‘scientifically to illustrate,’ and ‘to illustrate scientifically,’ there seems no good reason for flying in the face of common usage. (171)
Suddenly, what was considered “common usage” became a rule.
And we can blame John Dryden for being told to never end a sentence with a preposition. In his Defense of the Epilogue (1673), Dryden observes “. . . I live in an age where my least faults are severely censured; and that I have no way left to extenuate my failing, but by shewing as great in those whom we admire” (Malone 236). On the next page, Dryden censures Ben Jonson for ending a poetic line with a preposition: “The preposition in the end of the sentence; a common fault with him . . . .” (Malone 237). Dryden’s observation established the “never end a sentence with a preposition” rule that is still uttered today by many.
The English language
But English, as a living language, is fluid, mutable, and cannot be restricted to the rigidity of a single set of grammatical rules.² Think of the nearly infinite occasions in which people seek to communicate with others through writing: literature (novels, short stories, plays, poems), technology (texting, tweeting, emailing, websites), education (students essays, professional articles, books), business (proposals, reports, memorandums), music (lyrics), law (contracts, wills, deeds), and the list goes on.
Yet, does knowing that one set of rules cannot govern all writing situations allow us to ignore all those rules? No. In fact, learning the rules of grammar, regardless of their validity or history, allows people to communicate with a wide variety of people far more effectively.
While we can acknowledge that some rules are actually more suggestions than “rules,” depending upon the writer’s audience and purpose, knowing grammatical structures and their uses allows writers to communicate more effectively and precisely. For example, when we text a friend, confirming a lunch date, a simple “C U @ lunch @ 2” is sufficient and clearly communicates the message. But for most, writing is not limited to texting friends. Such a text would be largely inappropriate if the writer was confirming a lunch meeting with a potential employer.
As writers and as instructors who teach writing skills, we must know the rules and continue to teach grammatical rules because the individuals with whom we communicate have a varied knowledge of grammatical skills and ignoring the rules of grammar just because we believe they are no longer binding can be disadvantageous. Consider Kyle Weins, the co-founder of iFixit and Dozuki, companies that write product manuals. Mr. Weins is adamant in his refusal to hire individuals who do not know how to use grammar properly. He writes, “She [Lynne Truss, author of Eats, Shoots & Leaves] thinks that people who mix up their itses ‘deserve to be struck by lightning, hacked up on the spot and buried in an unmarked grave,’ while I just think they deserve to be passed over for a job — even if they are otherwise qualified for the position.”
Weins readily acknowledges that language changes, but he quickly adds that such changes do not exempt individuals from knowing and using grammar well. He argues that “good grammar is credibility,” essentially summarizing Aristotle’s concept of ethos.
An adage declares, the only constant is change. And that includes grammar. But just because the rules of grammar are changing (or at least coming into question) does not mean they should be readily ignored or altogether forgotten, for in doing so we open the door to poor, ineffective communication depending upon who is reading.