Do you use prepositions to end a sentence with? Do you believe it is wrong to ever split your infinitives? And do you start your sentences with conjunctions?
You are not alone.
When people find out I’m a linguist they often become extra careful around me. They believe linguists are strict guardians and arbiters of language. They think I’m a “grammar Nazi” or a member of the “grammar police” who will pick apart everything they say. But don’t worry. A linguist is your friend. We don’t judge. Linguists describe language, we don’t prescribe language.
We might say that particular ways of speaking and writing are standard versus non-standard, or formal versus informal, but we will never tell you that certain grammar is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, ‘polite’ or ‘impolite’, ‘proper’ or ‘corrupt’, or ‘good’ or ‘bad’.
However, many people still believe that there is ‘good English’ versus ‘bad English’. Some see themselves as rational and logical people who want to protect, regulate, and refine language, but they don’t realize that language is a living, evolving thing and there is no correct, true, or pure way of communicating – you just need to be understood.
Some people might not like to hear that, and therein lies my point. What’s known as “good grammar” is merely preference. Telling people how to speak is called prescriptivism, whereas linguists practice descriptivism, in which language ‘rules’ are derived from the users of the language, rather than rules being forced on them.
Telling people how to speak is not scientific. It is prejudice. it is bias. it is snobbery.
As linguists Kate Burridge and Jean Mulder (English in Australia and New Zealand) explain, attempts to form a “correct” English seemed to arise because English was overshadowed by the classical languages, such as Latin. In contrast, English seemed wild and untamed, although Latin was a written language that lacked the fluidity of a living language. It wasn’t until the 18th Century that English finally ousted Latin as the language of learned and technical writing.
Writers were worried that English was slipping into decline (a fear that’s still around today!) and that their works wouldn’t be understood by future generations, and so grammar guidelines began to appear.
Many notions of ‘good English grammar’ date back to the book A Short Introduction to English Grammar (1762) by Robert Lowth. We have him to thank for the modern abhorrence of double negatives, ending sentences with prepositions, and other supposed sins. However, he was imposing his norm on users. His rules were just preferences and his grammatical leanings were influenced by Latin. (Remember that English is a Germanic language, not an Italic language.) Ironically, Lowth’s own writings often fell short of the strict laws promoted in his book of grammar. I see this hypocrisy all the time with the Grammar Nazis too.
Lowth’s book was remarkably influential, probably because he was the Bishop of London. As Jean Aitchison (Language Change: Progress of Decay) suggests, perhaps people believed his insights were divinely inspired.
Lowth’s book was one of several regulating handbooks of the time that advised how language should and should not be used. Similarly, Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language (1755), the first English dictionary, was intended to rid English of “licentious idioms” and “colloquial barbarisms”. Obviously, it didn’t. In his day, Jonathan Swift was as well known for Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue (1712) as he was for Gulliver’s Travels.
But it was Lowth’s book of grammatical dogma that was adapted for use in schools and remained in usage in educational institutions until the early 20th Century.
So, the next time you try to ‘correct’ someone’s grammar, realize that you are possibly perpetuating the pompous prejudices of an 18th Century Bishop.