Grammar as Fact or Grammar as Choice

New English word? Translate any word using double click.

The above distinction was originally made by Richard A. Close in ‘A Teacher’s Grammar’ (1992). He had already formulated his ideas 30 years before, but published a revised version in the early 90ies. I believe the distinction to be quite valuable, even if not always clear-cut.

Grammar as fact concerns such aspects of the language that are non-negotiable if I want to be able to communicate with the majority of speakers of the language. Facts of grammar describe the essential regularities or rules of a language that define it and organize its meaning.

Word order, for instance, is an essential, significantly important aspect of sentence structure in English. Word order determines if a noun is the subject or agent of a sentence, i.e. the ‘doer’ of an action denoted by the verb, or the object – the thing, person, whatever entity the noun or noun phrase refers to – something is done to. There is a marked difference between ‘The dog chased the cat’ and ‘The cat chased the dog’ (see blog ‘Is it me’ or ‘Is it I’.)

German, in this respect, is very different from English as it has a case system by which meaning relationships are expressed morphologically e.g. by a change of the article: Der Hund jagte die Katze. Die Katze jagte den Hund. If we wanted to change agency without changing word order we could say: Den Hund jagte die Katze or Die Katze jagte der Hund. (Don’t ask why the article does not change in the feminine case – I find German often lacking the regularities you have in English and am therefore very happy not having to teach German). So in German it would be possible to put the object into the front and retain its sentence function. (Doing this, though, would not be the default case, and would imply a special focus on the object of the sentence; something like: it was the dog the cat chased, not anything else.)

Other facts of English grammar are: how plurality is expressed, use of modals, how questions are formed when using an auxiliary, the basic function of auxiliaries (a very essential feature of English) etc. Though there often might be alternative ways of expressing things (that’s where choice comes in), some linguistic forms are the way they are and if we want to speak adequately or in accord with the majority of native speakers, we should adhere to the basic rules of the language or risk being misunderstood.

The boundaries between ‘right,’ ‘still acceptable’, ‘a dialect feature’, or ‘downright wrong/not English’ may be fuzzy, as can be seen e.g. with questions: it is not really necessary, when uttering a question, to stick to the conversion rule (to form a question move the auxiliary of the verb phrase in front of the subject: Are you coming? You are coming, great!). We can also express a question simply by raising the intonation of a sentence toward the end: You’re coming? Or even: You coming? (I’ll explain this some other time.)

There are some irregular forms in English, due to the history of the language. English underwent many changes until it arrived at its current state of Modern English. Also, English (or rather English speakers) has (have) always borrowed and integrated words from other languages freely; and new words are created all the time, all over the world by users of English. In most cases, pluralization is conducted by adding plural ‘s’, but occasionally a different plural form might be or has been adapted.
There are (only) a few irregular plural forms like e.g. ‘mice’ (from ‘mouse’). Note that it is not ‘hice’ (‘house’), indicating that ‘mice’ is indeed an irregular form that needs to be memorized, and the transformation -ouse to -ice not a regular (productive) process of pluralization. It is not applied regularly to form other plural forms (like ‘hice’).

Other examples of irregular plural forms are ‘oxen’ (plural of ‘ox’), ‘children’, ‘sheep’ (‘sheep’).
Interestingly, when the computer mouse came into existence, the question arose: is it computer mice or computer mouses when we talk about more than one. Many opted for the regular form, applying the rule of regularity to the creation of a new word or term.  (By ‘rule of regularity’ I am referring to a very essential feature of any language: to eliminate irregularities or ‘exceptions’ as much as possible, making a language or the grammar of a language as little taxing to memory and as generative as possible.)

If you check a dictionary you will find both forms: computer mice and mouses.

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