How often do you (or your teacher) ask questions like this:
Is this correct English?
Is this good grammar?
What is the grammar rule?
Let me ask you some different questions:
Which came first - the language or the rules?
And what is grammar anyway?
I think there is a common misunderstanding about grammar. People think that sentences are always right or wrong. Learners believe that some things they hear are incorrect because they don’t fit the rules.
There are many situations where even native speakers “break the rules” though. When I was at school, I was told not to split an infinitive (not to put another word between “to” and the verb). Then I discovered Star Trek and the famous line: “to boldly go where no man has gone before.” “To boldly go” is an example of a split infinitive and in fact we do this quite often.
Maybe you’ve been told that you shouldn’t end a sentence with a preposition but English people do it all the time! Or perhaps you learnt that we shouldn’t start a sentence with a conjunction (e.g. and, but, so, because). Did you notice that I just did?!
We also have to remember that language is changing all the time. More and more people say “I’m loving this” even though “love” is a non-action verb and the rules say we shouldn’t use the present continuous. “Less” is becoming more common than “fewer” to talk about countable nouns. Hardly anyone uses “whom” these days.
Think about how you learnt your first language when you were a child. You probably learnt most of it from your parents. Did you sit down with them and study the grammar rules? I’m sure you didn’t! That shows it’s possible to learn a language without studying the rules, for children at least.
The amount of grammar taught in school depends on which country you live in and also how old you are. I hardly learnt any grammar at school but English children study it more nowadays. What about you? Did you learn the grammar rules for your own language at school?
I studied French, German and Latin at secondary school and some of my understanding of grammar comes from that experience. However, I didn’t learn English grammar rules until I trained to teach English at the age of 29!
So again, what comes first - the language or the rules? Do we say a sentence in a particular way because that’s what the rules say? Or are the rules actually just a description of what people usually say?
The answer, of course, is that the language comes before the rules and the rules just describe the language. In fact, I think it’s better to see grammar as a description of common patterns rather than fixed rules.
Now be careful! I’m not saying that there are no rules so you can say anything you like and it doesn’t matter! If you are too creative with your use of language, people won’t understand you! You still have to learn which tenses to use in which situation and so on.
Grammar isn’t about what you should say; it’s about what people do say. So instead of asking if something is right or wrong, grammatical or ungrammatical, perhaps it’s better to ask whether a native speaker would ever say it this way or not.
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