January 28th, 2014 .

The Stuff of Grammar

Pat Morden

In the first chapter of his fascinating book The Stuff of Thought Steven Pinker explores the puzzle of how children learn the complex rules of English grammar. In doing so, he offers this thought-provoking definition of grammar from the perspective of linguistics researchers:

Designating a sentence as “ungrammatical” simply means that native speakers tend to avoid the sentence, cringe when they hear it, and judge it as sounding odd.”

What a sensible approach. Could it be applied to grammar as professional communicators think of it – a set of immutable laws that less clever people don’t know? As Pinker said in an earlier essay, there is actually no higher authority for grammar in English and no exquisite logic to its rules.

Most of the prescriptive rules of the language mavens make no sense on any level.  They are bits of  folklore  that originated for screwball reasons several hundred years ago and have perpetuated themselves ever since. . . The rules conform neither to logic nor tradition, and if they were ever followed they would force writers  into  fuzzy, clumsy, wordy, ambiguous, incomprehensible prose, in which certain thoughts are not expressible at all.”

I’ve always tried hard not to be a grammar Nazi myself, but find myself clinging to the arcane knowledge of my trade. There are sentences that make me cringe, which I know would be perfectly acceptable to the vast majority of native English speakers. Maybe it’s time to relax and go with the flow?

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