There's been some discussion of late on a certain chat group about grammar/writing rules. I don't argue on chat groups because someone always takes up the argument at much greater length than I would think is necessary or even desireable. Still, it made me think of speaking (or in this case writing) my piece on grammar and writing "rules."

In defense of Grammar Nazis: it's difficult to make rules for English, which is a mongrel language in the first place, for which we can blame the Romans, the Germanic tribes, the Vikings, and the Norman French, all of whom conquered England at critical times and mixed their languages into one. English is very expressive, due to the unusual vocabulary (three times the number of words that Spanish has, for example), but it is confusing due to the irregularity of its most useful verbs (e.g. to be, to go, to do), the complexity of its pronouns (although we were clever enough to invent neutral ones), and the oddness of its syntax in things like placement of modifiers (adjectives go before the noun but adjectival prepositional phrases, which are also modifiers, go after it. Adverbs may go lots of places, but may change the meaning: "He nearly went a mile" is different from "He went nearly a mile"). Add to that our practice of borrowing words from just about everyone and using them for our own (hibatchi, vodka, croissant, mesa, etc.), AND the constant minting of new words to describe new products and practices (the Net, Googling, POD, CAT scan, etc.), and you've got a system for which rules are almost impossible.

Now add a public who likes breaking rules. Teens and computer geeks speak and write in abbreviated code (lol,
:(,ttfn). Various ethnic groups add color and confusion by putting their own spin on the language (British "lorries,"
African-American "'hoods" and "homeboys," Mexican-American "barrios" and "bodegas"). And writers, bless us all, try to capture a mood by twisting language, straining metaphor until it either sings or screams, depending on the talent involved.

Language is a living thing, and therefore it is always changing, like the cells in your body. What becomes useless is sloughed off, and what is needed is created, bit by bit. The rules, then, must be in constant flux. Yes, you were taught that "fun" is a noun. But how long must it be used as an adjective before the rule changes? There's no time limit, but it's happening.

So why are there rules? There have to be some, or we'll end up unable to understand each other at all. In my first teaching job, I was thrilled with the African-American speech rhythms and idioms of my students, but I knew those students had to learn "proper" English in order to succeed. Not that I wanted them to use it all the time. The key is to know when to be a Grammar Nazi and when to be something else.

We need the Grammar Nazis, even when they cling to the rules far too long, even when they're nasty about it. But we also benefit from the avant garde, who take the language to new places. What we must require of both of them is that they are good at their jobs. Grammar Nazis should be certain that their rules make sense. "Ain't" for example, is a perfectly logical construction that simplifies usage: "I ain't, you ain't, he ain't" is simpler than "I'm not, you aren't, he isn't," and language tends to simplify over time. However, the trend toward "Go slow" rather than "Go slowly" makes less sense, because it breaks a fundamental rule of grammar, that verbs are modified by adverbs. In that case, simplification is laziness that makes having and learning rules harder, not easier.

Breaking the rules just to break them is ridiculous. We learn and use rules to create a common understanding of our language. They aren't perfect, and sometimes they are perfectly ridiculous. But once we have them firmly in mind, we can decide when it makes sense to break a rule. If enough people agree, that rule dissolves and something else takes its place. It's just as Darwin said: survival of the fittest.

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