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Even That Would Be a Grammar

Sometimes when I admit to being a grammarian, and to having the grammatical structure of Standard English as a research interest, people will ask me how that could possibly be a job. We all know the rules, don’t we? Mustn’t begin a sentence with a conjunction; shouldn’t split infinitives; can’t end a sentence with a preposition (though we all do! ha! ha!); have to put apostrophes in certain places: What’s to study?

So I try to explain that it’s an empirical enterprise to discover the subtle and complex rules that define English, and how it must be done through observation of people’s actual speech and writing under a variety of conditions, and how the set of rules certainly doesn’t include any blanket prohibition of sentence-initial and, or so-called “split infinitives.” And the moment my interlocutor realizes I’m saying people’s actual use of the language must have a bearing on the formulation of the rules, I get a response like: “Oh! So you’re saying that anything goes if people are doing it!”

Suppressing a sigh, I calmly explain that this is not my position. Certainly there are rules, and very strict ones; but the books that have been offering us guidance over the past 200 years haven’t correctly identified them.

That leads to a charge that I’m trying to lower the bar, or move the goalposts, or something. And the conversation goes on.

People seem to want to pigeonhole me as either a rulebook-thumping martinet or an if-it-feels-good-do-it anarchist. I struggle to make it clear that the only sensible position lies in between those extremes, and mostly I fail.

English teachers tell me solemnly that undergraduate essays today are terrible, and America is doomed if we don’t teach students to write more rule-compliant prose, and I demur: If America is doomed, I claim, it will not be because of bad grammar. (That doesn’t usually go down well.)

Cognitive scientists sometimes tell me that psychological research on the processing of language reveals that there really aren’t any rules of syntax at all: Everything is explained by meaning and context and attention and memory access. How interesting it would be if that were true. I don’t believe it for a moment, though. English clearly has regularities and constraints governing word shape and position: Stay calm is a grammatical sentence and *Calm stay is not. That doesn’t follow from the meaning of either word. So I continue to try to discover what the regularities and constraints are.

But why? Why do I try? Faced with that question, I’m reminded of a beautiful paper by the philosopher Herbert Feigl called “The logical character of the principle of induction.” It appeared in the very first issue of Philosophy of Science, in 1934. I’ve always loved the ending, which characterizes induction in terms of the thesis that trying to draw good inductive inferences can be equated with simply trying to grapple with life:

The attempt to know, to grasp an order, to adjust ourselves to the world in which we are embedded, is just as genuine as, indeed, is identical with, the attempt to live. Confronted with a totally different universe, we would nonetheless try again and again to generalize from the known to the unknown. Only if extended and strenuous efforts led invariably to complete failure, would we abandon the hope of finding order. And even that would be an induction.

Well, the attempt to know the regularities and constraints of sentence structure, to grasp a linguistic order, to adjust ourselves to the linguistic environment in which we are embedded, is just as genuine as, indeed, is identical with, the attempt to speak and understand. Confronted with a totally different linguistic experience, where no grammatical rules were followed and speech was just a chaotic jumble of words, we would nonetheless try again and again to generalize from the known to the unknown. Only if extended and strenuous efforts led invariably to complete failure would we abandon the hope of finding syntax in the language used by the people around us, and (perhaps) come to believe that any and all possible orders of word forms in a sentence are permissible. And even that would be a grammar.

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