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On Grammar


What is good English? Every teacher of English, particularly one who teaches foreign students, must have been asked the question “What is the correct pronunciation of —?” or “is it good grammar to write —?” and on giving his answer must have been confronted with the reply “But I have heard many Englishmen (westerners, Americans, native speakers…) pronounce it differently” or “But this eminent novelist breaks that rule; who is finally to decide which is right?” The answer, of course, is “No one”. There is no Academy or other body in England to determine the correct form (unless the Queen wants to). The chief criterion of correctness is established usage. Correctness in spoken English is conformity to the speech usages of the majority of educated people; correctness in written English is conformity to the usages of the best modern writers. The rules of grammar are like the laws of Nature. The laws were not made for Nature to obey, but are simply a few facts which wise men have observed as to the way Nature acts. So the grammarian merely examines the language of the best speakers are writers, and deduces rules from their use of it.

Custom is the basis of these rules, and custom is always changing. Pronunciation changes from generation to generation, words decay and become obsolete, and newcomers thrust their way in; words acquire new meanings, sentences are constructed on different lines, and even the syntax of the language undergoes modifications. It is the business of the grammarian to observe and record these changes (in usage) and differences and to decide as far as he can what is the form of language used by the majority of educated speakers and writers; and their usage is his only authority for saying what is “good” and what is “bad” grammar.


2 Responses

  1. Which explains why, when I teach Latin to English speaking students, I first need to spend a whole hour just explaining the basic difference between an adjective and and adverb, and the fundamental notions of gender and number, they really have no clue what I am talking about.

  2. I love your emphasis on the fluid nature of the language. As a teacher of English, I tried to get my students to see that it is dynamic, not static–not a big lumpy rock to be rolled around and studied from different angles! More like a flowing river to navigate…and influence!

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