What Is Grammar?: A Deeper Dive

As you may know, there are multiple ideas about what constitutes grammar. In general, it refers to the rules that govern how a language is used. John McIntyre, writing about language for The Baltimore Sun, once categorized rules for the usage of English as follows:

  1. Unnoticed rules. These are the rules native speakers never think about but follow automatically.

  2. Explicit rules. These are the rules that native speakers probably both consciously know and automatically follow, like McIntyre’s example of subject-verb agreement. (For instance, “The cats like yarn” is an example of a sentence with proper subject-verb agreement while “The cats likes yarn” is an example of a sentence without it.)

  3. Conventions. Under this category are issues like comma placement – things that are governed by somewhat-arbitrary standards that are constantly changing.

  4. Superstitions. Many “rules” in this category, like “don’t end a sentence with a preposition,” don’t correspond with fluent speakers’ actual usage and don’t actually make writing less ambiguous. Their existence is basically just a meme.

  5. Shibboleths. McIntyre describes these as “usages that are not wrong but which people seeking advantage over their fellows preen themselves on avoiding.” Ain’t, McIntyre says, is the classic example.

  6. House style. Certain publishers, or fields, may decide to follow particular conventions.

  7. Individual aesthetic preferences.

So, are these seven categories of grammatical rules? What about spelling? What about diction? Isn’t that stuff part of grammar, too?

Many laypeople would probably tell you yes, it’s all grammar. However, linguists – people who study language from a scientific perspective – would disagree. In fact, some of them would argue that only the two first categories, unnoticed rules and explicit rules, are actually part of grammar.

In other words, a sentence like “It ain’t a greate idea, to never try” may be an example of bad writing, but it is not an example of bad grammar.

So What?

Does this distinction actually matter?

Well, on the one hand, no. You shouldn’t write “It ain’t a greate idea, to never try” in an academic or professional paper. It doesn’t matter that, arguably, the sentence’s grammar is technically fine. If you write something like that, few will take you seriously.

On the other hand, yes, the distinction between mere stylistic issues and true grammatical errors does matter. In some cases – like creative writing or social media posts or emails to friends – you may care more about maintaining a certain tone or expressing a precise idea than you do about conforming to professional standards (and this is totally valid!).

You probably still want this writing to be grammatically correct, but you may feel that defying conventions or superstitions or shibboleths would be the best way to maintain your desired tone or to express your precise idea. The knowledge that those so-called rules are not real features of English grammar can give you the confidence to break them and make your writing the best that it can be, freed from the fetters of false rules.

The Bottom Line

Being able to adjust your writing to different contexts is crucial. It helps to know that there is a difference between universal (or near-universal) grammatical rules, like subject-verb agreement, and the stylistic “rules,” like not splitting infinitives. Knowing this can allow you to write in a way that is appropriate for your audience. You can conform to professional norms in your professional writing and then develop different styles in your personal writing – all while working toward grammatical correctness in everything you write.

The next four posts in this series will go over issues related to spelling and grammar – that is, grammar as the layperson might conceive of it. I won’t fuss too much over the technicalities of what counts as grammar and what doesn’t; instead, I’ll be sharing practical tips on how to improve your writing. I’ll focus on what’s appropriate for professional writing, since that is a common – and sometimes high-stakes – concern. Just keep in mind that, aside from specific spellings for specific words, most of the tips I share are guidelines. There are fairly few hard-and-fast rules in English writing.

Alicia Holland

Alicia Holland has a B.A. in creative writing from Binghamton University and an M.A. in teaching of English from Teachers College, Columbia University. She loves to play with language and literature.

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