Grammar Rules and Usage

The NYT stages an interesting debate on "Which Language Rules to Flout. Or Flaunt?"

The NYT stages an interesting debate on “Which Language Rules to Flout. Or Flaunt?” featuring Black’s Law Dictionary editor-in-chief Bryan Garner and The Economist‘s Robert Lane Greene. The former is mainly a “prescriptivist,” insisting on close adherence to grammar rules, and the latter mainly a “descriptivist,” arguing that the way language is actually used should be our guide rather than arbitrary rules.  I use the mainlys because, in the course of the exchange, it’s clear that there’s not all that much light between the two men’s positions.

As for my position on the matter, Greene captures it perfectly here:

What do we do when what we want the rule to be conflicts with what great writers actually do? I submit a meta-rule: When a proposed rule and actual usage conflict, the proposed rule is false, and actual usage should be our guide.

This takes some unpacking. Whose usage, in particular, should constitute our rules? But this is not so hard: when we’re describing standard edited written English, we look at standard edited written English to derive the rules. If a usage appears only very rarely, and is widely condemned, we call it a mistake. If it appears again and again from the pens of great writers and is printed after oversight by professional editors, the usage must be accepted. [emphasis mine]

Formal American English has changed considerably in the four decades since I started grade school. Most obviously, we’ve become much more conscious about gender and have thus done away with the use of the generic masculine. But we’ve generally trended towards more informal conventions. We capitalize far fewer words now. Commas are used much less frequently. Hyphenated adjectives have all but disappeared, as has the distinction between acronyms and initialisms. Dashes have replaced parentheses and restrictive clauses in most writing.

But Greene’s distinction is important: It’s not just that “people” have abandoned old rules and adopted new practices, it’s that our best writers have done so under the supervision of editors. If the pages of The New York Times, Vanity Fair, and Random House consistently drop old conventions for new ones, it’s an indicator that our language has evolved, not that error is rampant.

James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Kit says:

    Whenever this topic pops up, people often miss two points: First, a careful writer/speaker uses different registers as required by the situation. Failure to distinguish between who and whom in formal writing marks one as something of an ignoramus among the very people one is trying to persuade. On the other hand, a too careful insistence upon using whom in a bar among friends will likely mark one as a hoity-toity snob with a tin ear.

    Second, while everyone admits that language changes, few think about what that means in the here and now. Most change is vulgar, but, thankfully, temporary. Knowing when to fight for the old standards and when to throw in the towel shows something of a man’s personal style. Whether that style be in good or bad taste will, of course, be for others to decide.

    Language most shows a man, speak that I may see thee. — Ben Johnson
    When ideas fail, words come in very handy. — Goethe

  2. sam says:

    Heh. I’m learning Spanish. Spanish-speaking folks are burdened with the Real Academia Española, which is about to publish the 11th (I think) edition of the bible of Spanish grammar: 2400 pages on the rules of Spanish. Mercifully, we don’t have a Royal Academy of English. But that’s not surprising. English is an invented language, after all, mostly germanic in origin, but including Latin, Danish, French and God only knows how many other elements. It’s made us language whores: We will take anything in if it pays.

    Here’s something interesting, though. There may be a new form of Spanish emerging in the US, and I don’t mean Spanglish. Spanish, like French, has a subjunctive mood. The subjunctive has almost disappeared in English, but the subjunctive is very strong in (correct) Spanish.

    For instance, if I want to say ‘I believe he speaks Spanish’, I would say, “Creo que él habla español”. But if want to say, ‘I doubt he speaks Spanish,’ I would have to use the subjunctive mood, “Dudo que él hable español.”

    Certain verbs in Spanish trigger the use of the subjunctive, dudar, to doubt, is one. But note that the difference in the examples between the indicative, habla, and the subjunctive, hable, is a simple vowel change, a -> e.

    Where I live, in New Mexico, my Spanish teacher tells us that her young teenage students, raised in bi-lingual households do not use the subjunctive. They will say, “Dudo que él habla español.’ She, of course, as a native speaker, hears the difference, habla instead of hable. The kids, she tells us, get indignant when she tries to correct them.

    This is, I think, is the influence of English on Spanish as spoken in the US, and could only occur in an environment where English and Spanish are almost “co-equal” in use. Something like this would never happen in Latin America.

    So, the new form of Spanish that may be emerging in the United States is a Spanish without a subjunctive mood. The Dons in Madrid will have fits.

  3. Dave Schuler says:

    Punctuation and grammar aren’t the same thing although you’ve conflated them here. Serial commas and dashes are punctuation. Capitalization is style. The loss of the generic masculine is diction and, yes, it’s changed–in favor of the now-accepted use of the third person plural which is or was considered poor style. Broadly, all of these are style rather than grammar.

    Some of the changes in punctuation haven’t been motivated by increased clarity but by printed publications for reasons of their own, e.g. the decline of the serial comma. Recently I’ve seen stray commas (commas used as indications of vocal pauses) in columns in major newspapers. That wasn’t introduced by editors but by their lack.

    People may speak however they like and, if it becomes accepted, it’s accepted. However, we draw inferences from the spoken word beyond the plain meaning–social class, education, and so on.

  4. Murray says:

    As you mention there is very little light between Garner’s position and Green’s.

    I would submit that the changes in formal English you pointed out are more a change in style than a change in the fundamental rules of the language.

  5. CSK says:

    I do some editing work for an organization that does not, except in rare instances, permit the use of “he,” “she,” “her,” or “his” on the grounds that such words are potentially insensitive to the feelings of the transgendered.

  6. Mikey says:

    Languages evolve constantly. Here’s a video shot on Tangier Island, Virginia, where the inhabitants speak English the way it was spoken in the 1600s. Very different from today. The odd accent of Tangier VA (from AMERICAN TONGUES)

  7. JKB says:

    So we are back to the ‘great writers break the rules so should we’ discussion. Of course, what makes them great writers is knowing when to break the rules and when not. To adopt rule breaking without such understanding is to foster incoherence. This is true not only in grammar but in any endeavor. You must first master the strict rules before you can hope to ‘improvise’ with any good effect.

    This reminded me of this article published in 1921 to rebuke a novelist for her mirthful argument against teaching strict grammar some 90 years ago. It is an entertaining read as well as a fine example of the written spanking educated writers of the past were so eloquent in administering.

  8. James Joyner says:

    @Kit: Yes, different voices and conventions for different audiences and situations are critical.

    @Dave Schuler: Fair enough on the style/grammar distinctions, although they get blurry. Informality, generally, has been the trend. The who/whom and that/which distinctions are also largely observed in the breach.

    @JKB: I’m not so sure that “You must first master the strict rules before you can hope to ‘improvise’ with any good effect” is strictly true. I was solid in those things in my school days, although I couldn’t tell you what a lot of the formal rules are. But my writing style has always relied more on imitation than strict structure. I’ve always had a solid feel for what looks and sounds “right” because I read a lot.

  9. Gromitt Gunn says:

    Every time this topic comes up, my awe at the enduring power of Standard Written English is revived. It is amazing that – despite (or, perhaps, because of) not having any sort of Academy of English – an educated reader of English can pick up a newspaper article from Australia written in the 1800s, a play written in Jacobian England, a Puritan church sermon, Tom Sawyer, a article from the New England Journal of Medicine, or a post from this blog, and with little more than a dictionary or some annotations, fully understand what one is reading. It is quite remarkable.

  10. @sam:

    English is an invented language, after all, mostly germanic in origin, but including Latin, Danish, French and God only knows how many other elements.

    I’m reminded of the witticism, “English doesn’t just borrow words, it pursues other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.”

  11. @Dave Schuler:

    Recently I’ve seen stray commas (commas used as indications of vocal pauses) in columns in major newspapers. That wasn’t introduced by editors but by their lack.

    This is actually something of a reversion to traditional practice. Punctuation originally developed as timing guides for people who were reading written passages aloud. Its modern usage to demark syntax didn’t develop until the sixteenth century:

  12. Andre Kenji says:


    1-) All Neo Latin Languages are burdened by rules created by these Academies. French, Portuguese and Spanish are pretty terrible in this aspect. Portuguese is worse than Spanish and French because both Brazil and Portugal have their own rules, and worst, there is a huge difference between spoken Portuguese and the so called “Formal” written Portuguese.

    2-) I can say that Brazilian Portuguese can be influenced by English, even among people that do not speak English.

    3-) I usually speak Portuguese using some structures from English and I have to police myself when I write in English. Lots of times I write English using Latin structures or use words that makes no sense in English. 😉

  13. Andre Kenji says:

    @sam: Besides that, Sam, you might have noted that there are some similarities between Arabic and Spanish. So, English is not the only Language Whore.

  14. grumpy realist says:

    @sam: Hmmm. Somewhat like the dwindling of the use of subjunctive in French (did anyone ever use the imperfect subjunctive outside of Racine?) and the collapse of the honorifics in Japanese.

    @Gromitt Gunn: I’ve always found it interesting that I can read old French back to the Chanson de Roland (8th century) without too much difficulty but forgettabaht English any earlier than Chaucer.

    Of course there’s Rabelais, which is pretty incomprehensible without a specialized dictionary but, well, that’s Rabelais. (We don’t really have an equivalent wordsmith in English.)

  15. 11B40 says:


    One grammatical construct that seems to have been pretty much expunged during my lifetime is the use of the “so…as” after a negative instead of the now dominant “as…as”. SIster Frances de Chantal, who was also my piano teacher managed to cement it in either my cerebrum or my cerebellum, I can’t remember which is which anymore.

    A pertinent example, to wit,

    Bob is as tall as Bill; Bill is not so tall as Bob.

    And oh, yeah, should I apologize for using masculine names in this progressive day and age ?

    Lastly, the dearth of commas leads to things having to be reread as there are things that need to be visibly separated. Is that a bug or a feature ???