The Rules of the Game

For all the glib chatter one encounters about the “rules” of English grammar and usage, many people misunderstand what the rules are and how they work, and others prate about rules that aren’t rules at all.

English grammar and usage are crowdsourced; they are what we English speakers and writers collectively make them over time. They have not been handed down by some celestial Authority, and they are not logical.

I’ll quote H.L. Mencken from The American Language: “The error of . . . viewers with alarm is in assuming that there is enough magic in pedagogy to teach ‘correct’ English to the plain people. There is, in fact, too little; even the fearsome abracadabra of Teachers College, Columbia, will never suffice for the purpose. The plain people will always make their own language, and the best that grammarians can do is to follow after it, haltingly, and often without much insight. Their lives would be more comfortable if they ceased to repine over it, and instead gave it some hard study. It is very amusing, and not a little instructive.”

To establish more clearly what is a rule and what is not, I have assembled these categories.

Dark grammar: Unless you are learning English as a second language as an adult, there is a whole network of subterranean rules of grammar that most native speakers never think about. You didn’t need a class to teach you that the typical English word order is subject–verb–object; you picked it up when you were a toddler. The same with the order of adjectives. You would never say, “I love that European old antique big bookcase,” but “I love that big old European antique bookcase.”

Explicit rules: There are many of them, particularly in formal English, but they are often complex, with many exceptions and variations. Try to explain subject–verb agreement to a non-native speaker, making clear how “Ham and eggs are my favorite breakfast combination” and “Ham and eggs does not constitute a healthy breakfast” are both grammatically acceptable.

Conventions: Writers in the eighteenth century regularly inserted a comma between the subject and verb in a sentence. We don’t any longer. English orthography is a swamp of maddening conventions. And they, too, are subject to change; we no longer write to-day and to-morrow.

Superstitions: The things Arnold Zwicky calls “zombie rules”—no prepositions at the end of sentences, no split infinitives, none always a singular—have been exploded and rejected, not only by the descriptivist tribe, but by a multitude of prescriptivists. And yet, given a ghastly immortality by generations of defective schoolroom pedagogy, they persist against all reason and explanation.

Shibboleths: There are many usages that are not wrong but which people seeking advantage over their fellows preen themselves on avoiding. Ain’t, I suppose, is the classic example, hopefully a comparatively recent addition—though the peevers maintain a vast and ever-increasing store. Innocuous in themselves, these words and usages serve mainly to mark the people we like to feel superior to. (Terminal preposition there. See previous category.)

House style: These are the narrow conventions that individual publications or publishing houses insist on. They are very specific for legal, medical, scientific, and technical publications. And, of course, there are sad souls on copy desks who think that the Associated Press Stylebook belongs on the shelf with the statutes of Hammurabi and Justinian. They all present arbitrary choices and conventions. Follow them when appropriate, but stop short of idolatry.

Individual aesthetic preferences: Everyone has them, and tinpot authorities—managing editors, self-appointed Guardians of the Language, that ilk—love to impose them on the weak and unwary. You are entitled to your own preferences. What you are not entitled to do is to enforce them on others.


John Early McIntyre has been a professional editor for nearly 40 years, more than 31 of them at The Baltimore Sun, where he has headed the copy desk. John earned an undergraduate degree in English from Michigan State University, where he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, and a master’s degree in English from Syracuse University, where he was a university fellow. John has taught copyediting at Loyola University Maryland since 1995. A charter member of the ACES: The Society for Editing, he served two terms as its president. John has presented workshops on writing and editing at conferences and publications in the United States and Canada.