Playing the Game Called Grammar
God does not much mind bad grammar, but He does not take any particular pleasure in it.
There used to be a perfectly respectable use for ain’t. Jane Austin, the famous 18th century British author, used it. Ain’t was short for am not, as in “I ain’t going.” Just as we use contractions like didn’t for did not and can’t for cannot, ain’t was the contraction for am not. Ain’t also came be used for both are not and is not as well as other forms of the verb to be. So, what happened to it? Why can’t we use ain’t now? Shakespeare also used ain’t. He used double negatives, too. But that’s not never permitted by any English teacher today. So where do grammar and spelling rules come from anyway? How come Jane and William could do that, but we can’t?
The Genesis of Rules
Most people don’t get what rules are all about. We grow up thinking of ways to escape them, or sometimes we live stressed out lives trying really hard to obey them. Overall, most of us wish there weren’t so many. Let’s spring our brains a bit on this. First, say you’re playing a board game of some sort and someone new comes in who wants to play. So what’s the first thing you do? You explain the rules. Knowing the rules makes playing possible. And, not only that, the rules themselves create the game. Picture a deck of cards. There are hundreds of different games you can play using that one deck. The deck doesn’t change, only the rules. The rules differ from one game to the next because the rules are the game. If you were going to make up a new card game, the thing you would be creating would be a new set of rules. We tend to think of rules as restricting us. At certain times they do. But at a more fundamental level, rules are the description of how something operates, and knowing them doesn’t restrict you, it frees you.
A language is a lot like a card game. It consists of vocabulary and grammar. The vocabulary is the deck of cards and the grammar is the set of rules. Without grammar there would be no real communication at all. No one could play the game.
All some at understand without basic other could rules we each not!
The unintelligible sentence above has a proper set of vocabulary (the deck of cards), but it breaks every rule of syntax, or word order. When re-written according to the rules, the sentence reads:
We could not understand each other at all without some basic rules!
Grammar, which includes syntax, penetrates much deeper than just getting a subject and verb to agree or avoiding ending a sentence with a preposition. Grammar consists of rules we begin learning as soon as we start saying our first words. Anyone who can talk with intelligible speech has absorbed and digested grammar rules so complex that our brightest scholars have taken years to try to fully understand and describe them. The amount of grammar you already have tucked away inside your brain, whether you know it or not (and regardless of what your teacher says), is astounding!
From Descriptive Rules to Frozen Standards
From the time of William Shakespeare onward (c.1600), English began to really blossom at the more educated levels of society and soon it became a serious field of study. Scholars began tackling English to describe its rules of operation. They also began describing finer points of how educated writers write. People began studying these descriptions so they could sound educated, too. Having some guidelines or rules to follow gives an author assurance that he is writing in the way most acceptable to the largest number of readers. Larger dictionaries were written, grammar books were researched and composed and adopted by schools, and, as that happened, the guidelines, which began as descriptions of how we speak and write, became standards. The idea of a “right” way and a “wrong” way to speak and write emerged. Standards became a bit more frozen. All languages are continually changing over time, but the river of change slows down as a language goes through this process of maturing.
However, grammar standards themselves will always continue to shift. Sometimes the shifting is due to simple fashion. It becomes cliché to say something a certain way and sophisticated to say it another. “Ain’t” falls into that category. Ain’t was often used incorrectly by the uneducated and gradually educated people abandoned even the correct use of it because it had become associated with the “lower class.”
Sometimes shifting standards are due to the natural law of language change: All living languages simplify over time. There were at one time rules for using thee, thou, ye, and you. As English simplified, the one pronoun you took over for the other three words. So the standard for what was correct grammar shifted and simplified with the change in usage.
Sometimes changes come from overly anxious grammarians. As text books on English grammar come into print they sometimes do more than just describe how words are used, they affect them and they set the standards in the schools, which in turn set the standards for us all.
Whatever the cause, that which is correct in one decade may not be correct the next, just as ain’t was acceptable at one time, but now it ain’t. And, as you might suspect, there are more changes to come in the future, too. Linguistic sooth-sayers are making predictions and here are just a few: The word shall shall vanish. Whom will eventually bite the dust. The subjunctive case is not faring well these days (you probably don’t even know what that is!) Split infinitives are on the increase and barely noticed, and most authors don’t fret too much when a sentence ends in a preposition–especially if re-wording sounds too stilted and formal. But before you go trying to drop any the above from your list of grammar do’s and don’ts, let me warn you: it takes decades, even centuries, for a common blunder in English grammar to climb all the way up to the high plateau of blessed acceptability. And the change must overcome resistance from educators who live on that plateau.
Are We Degenerates?
As yesterday’s mistakes become today’s good prose, grammarians wail and bemoan the degeneration of English– “We’re losing the beauty of our language!” “No one speaks good English anymore!” But has it degenerated? Who knows! You can make a case for trying to hold back the tide of such ignoble changes, allowing only for the type of infusions that are uplifting, like new words and freshly coined phrases. We can work hard not to prevent grammatical errors from seeping into refined society, but a certain amount of downward tilt is inevitable as a language simplifies. Simplification tends to come from the lower rungs of the ladder. That’s one rule that won’t change.
The Case of Which and That
Admittedly, rule making has a way of getting out of control once it starts, and it wasn’t long before teachers and educators stopped describing how the educated spoke and wrote, and began to try to force English into more logical patterns. For example, have you ever been writing something on your computer and found that Microsoft Word had underscored an error saying you need to replace a that with a which, or vice versa? Well, Francis and Henry Fowler invented a rule for that and which in 1906. The rule had to do with essential and non-essential clauses and whatnot. The point is that this rule did not exist until these two grammarcrats decided that there should be one. They then put it in their highly popular grammar text The King’s English. Perfectly good writers, in fact some of the best writers, never have gone by this rule. Yet the rule has become so embedded in the textbooks and teacher credos of our day that now even our computers flag it!
The Goal is Freedom
The important thing with grammar is to learn which rules are the essential ones and to know how and when to apply those that are less important. There are times when a particular audience demands a more formal prose, even if that’s just the fact that your English teacher is a real stickler for finicky rules, and she is your audience. There are also times when you can hang really loose such as when you email a friend and you don’t even use capital letters.
Just remember, good rules don’t restrict you, they free you. They create the language game and make communication possible. It’s ignorance of the rules that drags you down. Knowing the elements of good grammar and style prepares you to speak and write effectively for any audience. It empowers you to communicate confidently with people from all walks of life, from the president of the company to the janitor who sweeps his office. Speaking well, writing well, these acquired talents allow you to “play the game” at any level. And that is freedom, and that’s what rules should always be about.