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What rules are for

A brief reminder, taken from Nicholas Ostler’s excellent history of Latin, Ad Infinitum:

Perhaps the cultural overlay of grammar—the complacent, and hence resented, elitism of those who have learned the rules—had ended up getting in the way of its utility. Rules are learned, after all, not primarily to demonstrate the intelligence of the person who knows them, but as a shortcut to sophisticated performance.



Posted by John McIntyre at 7:04 PM | | Comments (2)


The devil is in the definition of 'rules'. Do we mean the genuine, functional rules of English, for example, mentioning size before colour (the big green truck) and adding -s for most plurals, or do we mean rules like 'don't split infinitives'? Or worse yet, dubious rules of style promoted to grammar in non-rules such as 'don't use passive'?

How about rules used so that we may all understand what we are saying? Or is that too practical an application? In the British series "MI-5," two characters are arguing about running the security services. One says he hasn't time for the niceties: the other, Jon Finch the good guy, says he likes the niceties, because they protect us from tyranny. On a less dramatic matter, so do rules of language. If everyone just erupts with the first thing that comes to mind, the result is truly Babel.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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