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Mind your manners: grammar or etiquette?

Updated: Dec 11, 2020

Why is it that we instinctively ‘know’ that adjectives come before nouns, but have to LEARN that we shouldn’t end a sentence with a preposition or split an infinitive?


The answer is that the latter two aren’t ‘grammar’ at all, but simply examples of linguistic etiquette – completely arbitrary rules laid down by self-styled grammarians a couple of hundred years ago. We accept that fashions change - we don’t wear corsets anymore, for example - so why do some continue to impose such restraints on our own use of language and that of others?


As the linguist’s go-to all-round guru David Crystal has said, ‘language is very public behaviour’, and as writers and speakers, our use of language is always open to praise or criticism from others. It’s why copyeditors and proofreaders are always in work – it matters to people how their writing appears to their clients, colleagues and the wider public. So it’s no surprise that many people consult external sources such as grammar books for advice. For over two hundred years, these manuals of the ‘correct’ way to speak and write English have been modelled on the work of the 18th-century writers who first attempted to formalise the ‘rules’ of the English language. Publications such as Bishop Lowth’s Short Introduction to English Grammar (1762) and Lindley Murray’s English Grammar (1794) had an enormous influence on the teaching of grammar. Their purpose, according to Lowth, was ‘to teach us to express ourselves with propriety in that Language; and to enable us to judge of every phrase and form of construction, whether it be right or not’. Lowth seems to be saying that there’s a right way and a wrong way to speak and write English, but I'm interested in how his notion of ‘propriety’ fits into that.


The tradition Lowth represents developed rapidly in the 19th century and these grammar books went through dozens of printings; for much of the twentieth century the teaching of English was based on the guiding authority of the monolithic and absolute entity ‘grammar’. Readers who were at school up until the 1960s might remember being schooled by rote in their grammar ‘primer’, with a rap on the knuckles with a ruler for any slip-ups. More recently, however, linguists and teachers have questioned the nature of that authority, coming to the conclusion that most grammar books of English are simply books of etiquette. What the 18th century grammarians decreed as acceptable usage is not in fact some ‘universal’ and immutable set of instinctive rules, but simply one of the many different dialects of English spoken in the British Isles at that time. And you guessed it – the kind of English chosen to be exalted in this way was the kind of English that an Oxford-educated well-connected middle-class bishop might speak, or what we might nowadays call ‘The Queen’s English’. Far from being ‘absolute’ in matters of right and wrong, the grammar of English as laid down by grammarians like Lowth is in fact as arbitrary as fashions in dress or table manners and, moreover, is actually biased in the favour of particular people. It probably comes as no surprise that in the 18th-century Venn diagram of social acceptability, the circles containing people with ‘good table manners’ would have overlapped almost entirely with the group of people considered to speak ‘correct English’!


The idea that grammar can be ‘biased’ may seem a strange one, but my headline perhaps demonstrates the way in which most traditional grammar books are indeed ‘selective’. They might claim in their grand-sounding titles that they encompass ‘the Grammar of English’, but in fact, they go no way towards explaining the structure of the grammatical system, or the totality of the English language. They rarely highlight the information which we implicitly know, such as the fact that adjectives precede nouns. Instead they concentrate on rules that are not intuitively obvious to us, even as native speakers, such as the ban on ending a sentence with a preposition or splitting infinitives. While the construction noun-adjective is perfectly possible in French, all native speakers of English know that this is impossible in their language and never try to use it; however, constructions such as the split infinitive are in constant daily use by English speakers. In fact, this particular rule doesn’t really belong to the core grammar of English at all. Just like ban on sentence-final prepositions, it comes originally from the grammar of Latin (held by highly-educated 18th century grammarian bishops to be the purest language, from which English was a degraded descendant). The vital point here is that the infinitive in Latin is a single word (e.g. amare) and cannot be split, even if you wanted to. But it’s precisely because it is possible in English that grammarians have felt the need to ban it!


Perhaps the reason that etiquettes of English originally sprang up is that ours is a language with many points of what linguists call ‘optional variability’. Is it different to, different from, or different than, for example? We have three different choices available to us, all of which could be argued to be correct via grammatical analogy with forms such as similar to or other than. But as social beings we look to (often self-appointed) authorities to guide us on which one is preferable. We want to be 'correct' because that will bring us more social prestige, and if all three choices are possible in English grammar, then we select on the basis of which one is more ‘socially acceptable’. The 18th-century rule decreeing different from to be ‘correct’ had no basis in any real superiority of the form – it was simply the variant that happened to be used by the ‘best people’ of the time . Traditional grammar books are therefore what we call ‘prescriptive’. They don’t accurately or comprehensively describe the language because that is not their purpose. They seek to tell us how we should speak, rather than how we do speak. And by following this kind of 'social grammar', we demonstrate our social standing in the same way that we do when we refrain from putting our elbows on the dinner table.


Of course, there have to be points of grammar that are universal and agreed, such as the order adjective-noun, or subject-verb-object – without them we wouldn’t be able to understand each other, or to define a particular dialect as being ‘English’ (and copyeditors and proofreaders would be out of a job!). At the moment, 21st century books studied by second language learners are given titles like ‘Practical English Usage’ in order to reflect this move towards descriptivism, but they nevertheless lay down ‘rules’ to be followed. Second language learners are taught, for example, that the choice of fewer than or less than (one of my particular grammar bugbears) depends on whether you are dealing with a countable or non-countable noun. But how many supermarket signs declaring ‘Less than 10 items only’ have you come across in the past week? And how long before ‘fewer’ disappears altogether from our description of the language as it is used? I, for one, will mourn it, but I can’t exactly justify why. Like all living languages, English is constantly changing whether we like it or not. I guess that rather than being in either the descriptivist or the prescriptivist camp, I fall somewhere along the continuum, and whether or not I have an internal rant in the checkout queue will depend on how much coffee I’ve had that morning. But you can rest assured that I’ll never call you out for a split infinitive. To echo Churchill's legendary response to a preposition-stickler, that is the kind of pedantry up with which I will not put.

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