Recently I was involved in an online discussion about the pronunciation of the word the before vowels. Someone wanted to know if it was pronounced /ði/ (“thee”) before vowels only in singing, or if it was a general rule of speech as well. His dad had said it was a rule, but he had never heard it before and wondered if maybe it was more of a convention than a rule. Throughout the conversation, several more people expressed similar opinions—they’d never heard this rule before and they doubted whether it was really a rule at all.
There are a few problems here. First of all, not everybody means exactly the same thing when they talk about rules. It’s like when laymen dismiss evolution because it’s “just a theory.” They forget that gravity is also just a theory. And when laymen talk about linguistic rules, they usually mean prescriptive rules. Prescriptive rules usually state that a particular thing should be done, which typically implies that it often isn’t done.
But when linguists talk about rules, they mean descriptive ones. Think of it this way: if you were going to teach a computer how to speak English fluently, what would it need to know? Well, one tiny little detail that it would need to know is that the word the is pronounced with a schwa (/ðə/) except when it is stressed or followed by a vowel. Nobody needs to be taught this rule, except for non-native speakers, because we all learn it by hearing it when we’re children. And thus it follows that it’s never taught in English class, so it throws some people for a bit of a loop when they heard it called a rule.
But even on the prescriptivist side of things, not all rules are created equal. There are a lot of rules that are generally covered in English classes, and they’re usually taught as simple black-and-white declarations: x is right and y is wrong. When people ask me questions about language, they usually seem to expect answers along these lines. Many issues of grammar and usage are complicated and have no clear right wrong answer. Same with style—open up two different style guides, and you’ll often find two (or more) ways to punctuate, hyphenate, and capitalize. A lot of times these things boil down to issues of formality, context, and personal taste.
Unfortunately, most of us hear language rules expressed as inviolable laws all the way through public school and probably into college. It’s hard to overcome a dozen years or more of education on a subject and start to learn that maybe things aren’t as simple as you’ve been told, that maybe those trusted authorities and gatekeepers of the language, the English teachers, were not always well-informed. But as writing becomes more and more important in modern life, it likewise becomes more important to teach people meaningful, well-founded rules that aren’t two centuries old. It’s time for English class to get educated.