WNW: Rules? Who Says?

Several people have asked me recently about the rules of grammar and usage. Who makes them? What determines what a rule is? When and why and can we break them?

To answer that, first, we have to back up a bit.

Language evolves; we all know that. Take a look at the opening line of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales in the original, and your eyes will glaze over. (That is English? What the . . . )

My dad has the first paragraph memorized, and when he recites it, it sounds stinkin' cool . . . but nothing like English.

My History of the English Language class was taught, as I've mentioned before, not by a linguist as it should have been, but by a well-meaning but ignorant literature professor who had no clue what the material meant. (Fortunately, I could go to Dad to figure out what the HECK she was teaching.)

But the workbook was helpful. It gave us exercises to show how the language had gradually changed in very predictable ways (if this vowel came after this consonant, it changed into this one). We'd apply the changes to Old English sentences and get Middle English ones. Then we'd get a new set of rules, apply them and, assuming we'd done the previous set correctly, we'd end up with Modern English.

It was way cool, especially to see how the changes weren't random, but very systematic.

We did similar things with sentences in a current dialect: BEV, or Black English Vernacular. Such "street" talk may sound random and just wrong, but even it is governed by its own rules (whether the speakers know it or not).

That was a lesson in a simple linguistic concept:

No dialect is inherently better or worse than another. They all have quirks and rules and structure. There is nothing in and of a standard dialect that makes it better than another . . .

Except for the fact that those who are educated have picked the standard as the dialect of the educated. They've selected it as the "correct" dialect, for lack of a better term.

Therefore, to be taken seriously in school, jobs, and other settings, a person must know the standard dialect and know its rules.

If you break the rules of the standard dialect in a situation where the standard is called for, you risk losing credibility and looking uneducated.

But break the rules of the standard by speaking your home-town dialect with family and friends, and that's totally fine. That dialect is what's expected of you in that environment.

Most of us have several of these "registers" (sort of like mini dialects) that we use in different situations. For example, I'd tell the same story to a gal pal very differently than I would to a police officer or my parents or one of my children. In each situation, I'd slip into a different register, using different vocabulary, sentences lengths, etc.

Okay, so back to the standard dialect and THE RULES:

The rules change gradually over time. Note the over time part.

A true change can take literally decades before it's accepted as a new standard.

So who accepts it as the new standard? Essentially, if the majority of educated, standard-dialect speakers view the change as an acceptable usage, it's considered a new rule.

Forty or so years ago, parents constantly corrected children asking, "Can I go to the bathroom?" with, "May I go to the bathroom?"

But the word can has since taken on a definition beyond ability. It also implies permission. Today, you'll occasionally run into someone old-school who insists on the old definition, but kids today will grow up with the new one.

Recently we watched an old movie that had a moment using can in the old sense, with an adult correcting the child, and my kids were genuinely confused as to what the problem was. (And these are well-read, smart kids, if I say so myself.) The rule has simply changed. Can I go is perfectly acceptable now.

Another rule that's on its way out but has a few die-hard people holding on is whom (and its cousin, whomever). There's a funny scene on The Office about when to use whomever, and it's a great example of how the general (educated!) public has almost entirely lost the meaning of whom. (Pam, the secretary, knows the rule. Michael, the manager, doesn't. Then again, I wouldn't call Michael educated . . .)

Today, whom is so rarely used that in my own writing, I avoid any sentence structure that would call for it, because it would draw attention to itself. Can you imagine Kim from Band of Sisters asking "To whom does this straw belong?" Um, no.

Other books, including the new Mockingjay, use who in places where the old rule required whom, which again shows how things are changing and how we're getting pretty darn close to having who being acceptable in every situation. (But not in everyone's book, quite yet. I'd give it another ten years.)

All of this is why, in casual conversation and on blog posts, I don't worry about broken rules and the like. Those aren't situations (or registers) that require the rules, such as they are, to be kept.

But in professional situations, such as in articles and novels and the like, I tend to lean on the side of being conservative, to be sure that my colleagues, readers, and reviewers are aware that yes, I am well-versed in the standard dialect and know its rules.

And this is precisely why I freaked out when a copy editor added a lay/lie error to one of my books. I caught it at the last minute (phew!). And yes, I know 99% of readers likely either wouldn't notice or care. But I do. And I know that there are readers who do care.

I also know that the distinction between lay/lie is dying, but, to quote Monty Python, it isn't quite dead yet.

So it's a good idea to learn the rules, including what's gradually changing and how close the changes are to being considered standard. Then use that knowledge in speech and writing when the register is appropriate.

Hanging out with friends, I could well say, "Me and my sister went to the store," but if I'm talking to a prospective employer, I'd rephrase it as, "My sister and I went to the store."

Because I know the rule and the expectations surrounding the standard.

Lots of rules are bent all the time, and you can definitely get on those bandwagons, but if you're hoping to be taken seriously in a professional writing capacity, you do need to know the "real" rules of the standard and know how to apply them.

But then you can have fun breaking them in dialogue, because your characters can speak in whatever register and dialect they want.


Kristina P. said…
I think that with anything, etiquette, fashion, etc., time definitely has an impact on grammar. Things will always be poor grammar, but now irregardless is apparently OK.
T said…
my kids will breathe a sigh of relief when I tell them to go ahead and use "can" instead of "may"... the wait for the bathroom will be much shorter.

but PLEASE tell me that I won't have to listen to "irregardless" anywhere, I'm not sure I can put up with that one.
Jessica G. said…
I like the study of etymology. It's interesting and more than a little perplexing. It probably helped that my class was taught by a stand-up comedian. No, seriously! He performed at Johnny B's all the time.
Lara said…
So while I was reading this, I thought to myself, "Self, I wonder if Annette will accept that the lay/lie thing is probably on its way out?" :)

I'm much more strict with may/can and whom/who than I am with lay/lie. At least in speech. I can't write it wrong. Because it looks wrong. But I can say it wrong pretty darn easily...

Anyway, I saw this blog post the other day and I thought you would get a kick out of it: <a href="http://hyperboleandahalf.blogspot.com/2010/04/alot-is-better-than-you-at-everything.html>I love this alot</a>
Lara said…
Sorry, missed something:

I love this alot
Sue said…
My mom always stressed the old rules of grammar. Can I go? Was answered with, "I don't know. Are you able?" Etc.

I like your posts about language.

Melanie J said…
I want whom to be done. Because I'm done with it, so that should count for something, right?
Chas Hathaway said…
I once had a writing teacher say that you can use whatever rules you want in a book or story, just make sure you do it consistently throughout the work so people know it's deliberate.

I guess someone would have to be careful about that, but I thought that was an interesting perspective.

Annette Lyon said…
Chas, That's a good point. It supports the main concept, too--in order to consistently break rules, you have to know what they are in the first place.
I loved my history of the English language class at BYU. But then, that stuff fascinates me. Many times I wondered if I should have majored in Linguistics rather than English.
Helena said…
I think I hear "lay" much more than "lie" these days. Alas.

Popular posts from this blog

How This ADD Writer Thrives

This Is Your Writing Brain on ADD

WNW: Why Punctuation Matters