Arrant Pedantry


It’s All Grammar—So What?

It’s a frequent complaint among linguists that laypeople use the term grammar in such a loose and unsystematic way that it’s more or less useless. They say that it’s overly broad, encompassing many different types of rules, and that it allows people to confuse things as different as syntax and spelling. They insist that spelling, punctuation, and ideas such as style or formality are not grammar at all, that grammar is really just the rules of syntax and morphology that define the language.

Arnold Zwicky, for instance, has complained that grammar as it’s typically used refers to nothing more than a “grab-bag of linguistic peeve-triggers”. I think this is an overly negative view; yes, there are a lot of people who peeve about grammar, but I think that most people, when they talk about grammar, are thinking about how to say things well or correctly.

Some people take linguists’ insistence on the narrower, more technical meaning of grammar as a sign of hypocrisy. After all, they say, with something of a smirk, shouldn’t we just accept the usage of the majority? If almost everyone uses grammar in a broad and vague way, shouldn’t we consider that usage standard? Linguists counter that this really is an important distinction, though I think it’s fair to say that they have a personal interest here; they teach grammar in the technical sense and are dismayed when people misunderstand what they do.

I’ve complained about this myself, but I’m starting to wonder whether it’s really something to worry about. (Of course, I’m probably doubly a hypocrite, what with all the shirts I sell with the word grammar on them.) After all, we see similar splits between technical and popular terminology in a lot of other fields, and they seem to get by just fine.

Take the terms fruit and vegetable, for instance. In popular use, fruits are generally sweeter, while vegetables are more savory or bitter. And while most people have probably heard the argument that tomatoes are actually fruits, not vegetables, they might not realize that squash, eggplants, peppers, peas, green beans, nuts, and grains are fruits too, at least by the botanical definition. And vegetable doesn’t even have a botanical definition—it’s just any part of a plant (other than fruits or seeds) that’s edible. It’s not a natural class at all.

In a bit of editorializing, the Oxford English Dictionary adds this note after its first definition of grammar:

As above defined, grammar is a body of statements of fact—a ‘science’; but a large portion of it may be viewed as consisting of rules for practice, and so as forming an ‘art’. The old-fashioned definition of grammar as ‘the art of speaking and writing a language correctly’ is from the modern point of view in one respect too narrow, because it applies only to a portion of this branch of study; in another respect, it is too wide, and was so even from the older point of view, because many questions of ‘correctness’ in language were recognized as outside the province of grammar: e.g. the use of a word in a wrong sense, or a bad pronunciation or spelling, would not have been called a grammatical mistake. At the same time, it was and is customary, on grounds of convenience, for books professedly treating of grammar to include more or less information on points not strictly belonging to the subject.

There are a few points here to consider. The definition of grammar has not been solely limited to syntax and morphology for many years. Once it started branching out into notions of correctness, it made sense to treat grammar, usage, spelling, and pronunciation together. From there it’s a short leap to calling the whole collection grammar, since there isn’t really another handy label. And since few people are taught much in the way of syntax and morphology unless they’re majoring in linguistics, it’s really no surprise that the loose sense of grammar predominates. I’ll admit, however, that it’s still a little exasperating to see lists of grammar rules that everyone gets wrong that are just spelling rules or, at best, misused words.

The root of the problem is that laypeople use words in ways that are useful and meaningful to them, and these ways don’t always jibe with scientific facts. It’s the same thing with grammar; laypeople use it to refer to language rules in general, especially the ones they’re most conscious of, which tend to be the ones that are the most highly regulated—usage, spelling, and style. Again, issues of syntax, morphology, semantics, usage, spelling, and style don’t constitute a natural class, but it’s handy to have a word that refers to the aspects of language that most people are conscious of and concerned with.

I think there still is a problem, though, and it’s that most people generally have a pretty poor understanding of things like syntax, morphology, and semantics. Grammar isn’t taught much in schools anymore, so many people graduate from high school and even college without much of an understanding of grammar beyond spelling and mechanics. I got out of high school without knowing anything more advanced than prepositional phrases. My first grammar class in college was a bit of a shock, because I’d never even learned about things like the passive voice or dependent clauses before that point, so I have some sympathy for those people who think that grammar is mostly just spelling and punctuation with a few minor points of usage or syntax thrown in.

So what’s the solution? Well, maybe I’m just biased, but I think it’s to teach more grammar. I know this is easier said than done, but I think it’s important for people to have an understanding of how language works. A lot of people are naturally interested in or curious about language, and I think we do those students a disservice if all we teach them is never to use infer for imply and to avoid the passive voice. Grammar isn’t just a set of rules telling you what not to do; it’s also a fascinatingly complex and mostly subconscious system that governs the singular human gift of language. Maybe we just need to accept the broader sense of grammar and start teaching people all of what it is.

Addendum: I just came across a blog post criticizing the word funner as bad grammar, and my first reaction was “That’s not grammar!” It’s always easier to preach than to practice, but my reaction has me reconsidering my laissez-faire attitude. While it seems handy to have a catch-all term for language errors, regardless of what type they are, it also seems handy—probably more so—to distinguish between violations of the regulative rules and constitutive rules of language. But this leaves us right where we started.

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