Why Do We Care about Grammar?

English Grammar Boot Camp

“Aptitude is essential; but equally as important is the desire to learn.” That sentence was on the usage ballot for the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (AHD) in fall 2015.

All the members of the Usage Panel were asked to vote on the sentence, using these categories: acceptable, somewhat acceptable, somewhat unacceptable, or completely unacceptable. At issue: Is the phrase equally as redundant? Fifty-three percent of the panel deemed the sentence unacceptable. The panel tipped toward rejecting the sentence—but was still split. Blurry lines like that are what we’ll discuss throughout this course.

Watch lecture 1 from the course “English Grammar Boot Camp” by professor Anne Curzan, and use the bullet points below as a guide to follow along with the lecture.

About Usage

  • The Usage Panel was created by AHD in the late 1960s to give dictionary users guidance about formal writing. The panel surveys a group of highly educated people invested in language. Today, there are about 200 members, including academics, journalists, creative writers, radio personalities, and linguists.
  • Members vote on whatever grounds they choose: personal preference, favorite usage guides, data about actual usage, and so on.
  • There isn’t some objective measure of whether a grammatical construction is acceptable. And judgments about acceptability change over time—as we’ll see in this course. This is one of the things that make studying grammar endlessly interesting.
  • If you can accept and even embrace the complexity and subtlety of what “acceptable” means when it comes to usage, you can write and edit with even more nuance. It allows you to be careful in the best sense of that word: to care about the language and how to use it best in any given situation.
  • We can master the usage rules that help us write appropriate and even beautiful prose—and we can recognize where usage guides don’t agree because the language is changing or because our sensibilities are changing.
  • There are bits of grammar that grammarians have paid a lot of attention to over the decades and made pronouncements about. Two examples are split infinitives and ending sentences with prepositions.
  • There are also bits of grammar people haven’t noticed as much. An example: Is it “have showed” or “have shown”? No one seems to care right now. Both are acceptable in formal prose. However, that is not the case for everyone with “proved” versus “proven.”

An Open Mind

  • Keep an open mind—think about grammar in what may be a new way. That’s not to say we should throw out all usage rules we’ve learned. The conventions of formal, edited English can be very valuable.
  • Advice in usage guides, helps you to write clearer, more aesthetically pleasing prose. Some rules about formal grammar can help you avoid ambiguity and capture tone and prosody on the page.
  • But it’s valuable to distinguish “preferable” from “correct” or “the only acceptable thing.” It’s worth asking questions about a usage rule that has been handed down for generations. Asking those questions and making those distinctions makes us even savvier writers and speakers: We can make deliberate, informed decisions about language we want to use in context.
  • Linguists are sometimes accused of being hypocrites because they point out the very humanness of the rules that govern formal, edited English and sometimes their faulty logic, and then often follow those rules when they write books and articles.
  • One way to deal with this conundrum is to avoid your pet peeves in your own writing, but resist inappropriately correcting them in the writing of others; for example, you might avoid writing the word impactful, but since its use is now widespread, correcting it in the work of others is harder to justify.

Some Terms

  • The term usage means how words and phrases are used in speech and writing. This is understood broadly to cover pronunciation, word meaning, morphology, syntax, and punctuation.
  • Grammar is typically used more narrowly in linguistics to cover morphology and syntax (not pronunciation and punctuation). However, some “grammar books” out there cover pronunciation and punctuation
  • Both grammar and usage can be used descriptively to refer to what speakers and writers actually do with the language and to refer to what they should do to demonstrate “good usage” or “good grammar.”

Your Inner Grammando and This Course

  • The term grammando is a great word introduced by Lizzie Skurnick in The New York Times Magazine. Grammando means “one who constantly corrects others’ linguistic mistakes.” The example Skurnick gives is, “Cowed by his grammando wife, Arthur finally ceased saying ‘irregardless.’”
  • If you are someone with an opinionated, fairly outspoken inner grammando, this course will ask you to get in touch with that inner grammando. You can start a dialogue where the two of you can revisit usage questions your inner grammando might think are already settled.
  • Why? What are the benefits of this dialogue? It will make you even more careful, with an increased sensitivity to role of context and effects of language change. It will also make you more confident that you aren’t getting it wrong when you are helping others with usage
  • More importantly, it allows us to understand language difference as difference, not deficit. Language is a key part of culture, and understanding the diversity in our language is an important part of understanding the diversity among speakers. We can help others master the conventions of standard, formal usage without making others feel bad about themselves or their language.
  • If you are someone who feels some insecurity about your mastery of grammar, this course asks you to believe that you know more than you think you do. You “know grammar” because you are able to communicate. You may not know all the terminology or all the formal usage rules for written English, but you know a whole lot about how English grammar works.
  • The fun thing about this course is that we will unpack, analyze, and put labels on all of this knowledge that you carry around with you—and talk about the usage rules that may distinguish written English from spoken English.
  • With all of this knowledge, we can be ever more skilled speakers and writers. We’ll also learn a lot of great facts about the elaborate system and kooky idiosyncrasies in English grammar.
  • The course is loosely organized around the major parts of speech like nouns, verbs, prepositions, conjunctions, and the like. As we talk about how each part of speech works, we’ll address the tricky usage issues that come up with that part of speech.


Questions to Consider

  1. How would you define grammar?
  2. What are three of your biggest pet peeves about usage? As a mental exercise, try making the case for the acceptance of one of your peeves (e.g., using less for fewer could be seen as a streamlining of the grammar, eradicating an optional distinction without causing confusion).


From the lecture series English Grammar Boot Camp
Taught by Professor Anne Curzan, Ph.D.