Another post inspired by that excellent book of David Crystal‘s, where he mentions that–in an ideal world–we would raise our children to be linguists rather than grammarians–so that they would know the reasons the language works, not just the rules.
Personally, I think that’s a wonderful idea. I’ve always been a fan of knowing the reasons behind things, rather than being told “Do this.” (Really, ask my mother. I was a stubborn little girl, but if she said something like, “Carry an umbrella so that you can keep your books dry,” I was a lot more likely to bring it along than if she just said, “Bring an umbrella.” I can be reasoned with, but hate being told what to do. But I digress.)
The problem is that most people don’t have the time or inclination to study the history of the language, learning when this structure came into being or that rule started being enforced. Nor do they strictly need it. A 4-year old can get his point across without being able to define exactly what a verb does. What those pesky, somewhat arbitrary grammar rules do is work as short-cuts.
To give you an analogy–you can drive a car without knowing how the engine works. There are things you need to know (gas, brakes, steering), and things you really should know (turn signals, speed limits), and things which are relatively unimportant (the inner workings of an ignition-engine).
That doesn’t mean you don’t need a good mechanic who DOES know how the engine works and who can keep everything tuned up and working properly. You need someone you can go to when you have potential problems, so that when you hear a weird clunking sound, you get it looked at by an expert. But you don’t need to be an expert to tool around town.
Which brings us back to language. I like linguists keeping an eye on things and alerting me to problems. I LIKE knowing the way the word “its” is supposed to work and understanding why our first inclination for a possessive-“its” is to put that apostrophe-S in there. (Because, of course, we all grew up being drilled with “apostrophe-s shows possession.”) It would be nice if some of my English teachers in school had taught me some of the history in addition to The Rules.
Because, of course, the point is that many of the The Rules are not, in fact, set in stone. They were arbitrarily created by well-meaning literary men of the past who were trying to make the English language tidy (good luck). And as generation passed to generation, the rules became venerated, as if Moses had brought them down off Mt. Sinai. Never use a preposition at the end of a sentence! Never split an infinitive! Never begin a sentence with a conjunction!
I’ve passed some of these on to you in the past, and really, they’re not bad rules to know, but … why, if they’re not absolute, do we still follow them? The answer to that is coming in up the next post.