Punctuality Rules!

Linguist vs. Grammarian–Tradition

Linguist vs. Grammarian–Tradition

As we said last time, many of the The Rules that we (supposedly) live by, grammatically speaking, were arbitrarily created by literary men of the past who were trying to organize the English language. Then, as time passed, the rules became venerated. 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  rules on to you in the past, because they’re not bad rules to know, but … why? It’s an intriguing question. If The Rules are arbitrary, why should you follow them?

Well, again, some really are required–just like knowing how to steer and stop your car, you need to know what to do with your nouns and verbs. I think we can all agree that knowing how verb tenses work is pretty important, but that naming the difference between a “past participle” and “present past perfect” is less important. But some rules are more or less arbitrary, like that split infinitive rule.

The thing is–if you are NOT a linguist (and certainly I am not), how can you tell the difference? And why should you care?

This is why The Rules are helpful. Because, even if you really can end a sentence with a preposition, avoiding it is not not going to do you any harm. You can’t actually go wrong by following all those lovely grammatical rules. You might end up sounding formal or stilted, if you take them to extremes, but you’re going to be correct–just as if you wore a suit and tie to a picnic. You might be a little uncomfortable, but you’re not hurting anyone.

j0400505.jpgAnd, the other reason to follow The Rules? It’s tradition. There are lots of antiquated traditions that we still follow. Shaking hands stems from the medieval habit of showing that you were not holding your sword, but even though swords have been out of style for quite some time, we still shake hands. We salute as if raising imaginary visors on our imaginary helmets. We bless each others’ souls when we sneeze, even though we don’t really believe the soul is escaping the body. These are traditions, and people like traditions.

It doesn’t hurt to keep the traditions even though they’re obsolete, but neither does it hurt to examine some of the more far-fetched ones. I don’t expect every man I see to open doors for me, though I appreciate it when my hands are full.  I believe that children can, in fact, have things to contribute to conversations with adults. I’m just as glad I don’t need to curtsey when I meet a new person. (“Curtsey,” a word which comes from “courtesy,” but who is that courteous here in the 21st century?)

Then, when you expand the analogy further into “non-traditional” gender/race/religion roles, well, there are definitely times when you shake tradition from your shoes and march bravely into the future.

7 thoughts on “Linguist vs. Grammarian–Tradition

  1. Gillian

    But not knowing the rules is like going to a fancy party in your dirty jeans. Good post.

  2. Melissa Donovan

    I love the rules and I love to break them! Sometimes you just have to end a sentence with a preposition or you sound like something out of the eighteenth century! Also, for informal writing, breaking the rules is part of a writer’s creative license. But (see that? I started a sentence with a conjunction!) I agree — people who don’t know the rules rarely get away with breaking them effectively. Nice post!

    Melissa Donovan’s last blog post..When it All Comes Crashing Down

  3. --Deb

    It’s the trick-side of that old saw that you “have to know the rules in order to break them.” It’s not strictly true because anybody can break a rule they don’t know exists, but ignorance is not a valid defense. It doesn’t work for speeding tickets and it doesn’t work for language … but if you know WHEN it’s safe to ignore the rules (“My wife is in labor and we have to get to the hospital!”), it makes life a lot easier!

    –Deb’s last blog post..MM: Email–a Memo or a Letter?

  4. Pingback: Punctuality Rules! » Blog Archive » Linguist vs Grammarian–The Fallout

  5. Kris

    Why is it then that grammarians often change or “update” the rules, in apparent disregard for tradition, older rules, or linguistical study/consultation? For a simple example, consider the back and forth rule changes for the comma. Not so very long ago, the comma was well established for visually marking the pausing points in any English sentence. Its usage followed the natural rhythm of spoken English.