What is a (grammar) rule?

New English word? Translate any word using double click.

(Revised March, 2020)

In February, I read an article with my classes about business ethics. You can find it on onestopenglish.com, Business Spotlight Worksheet: Money or Morals.

In the introductory paragraphs, the author (Vicky Sussens) describes a group of children playing hide and seek:

It is a beautiful autumn day. The sun shines golden on a small group of children who excitedly agree to play hide and seek. “Whoopee!” calls Sarah, racing off to a tree to hide her eyes. “Count to ten!” shouts Johnny, “That’s the rule.”

Rules are so much part of human interaction that even children can stick to them – especially in a game where there are winners and losers. (p 2)

This passage led to a discussion on the nature of rules, laws, regulations etc. and someone remarked that especially – not even – children insist on following the rules of a game. We all remembered such incidences. Without everybody sticking to the rules, many games would simply be unplayable. Rules are the defining features of a game.

In larger groups, like societies, rules become laws to ensure, in the best of cases, a cooperative and peaceful life among all members of the community. In any case, there are significant reasons for rules and they are always made by humans (‘humanmade’ so to speak).

Do languages have rules too?

If the answer were yes, what would be their nature? What would they be for? And who made them up or developed them?

I’m always on a quest to convince my students that the study of grammar, language structure, verb structures, their meanings and use is not just important, but can actually be intellectually satisfying. It’s like mathematics and music: looking for patterns, finding them, their regularities etc. Understanding them and eventually being able to use them: play the music, understand the equation, speak the language semantically and structurally more adequately thereby enhancing your possibilities of expression. I always try to point out which aspects of the language are more important for successful communication and which ‘mistakes’ would not necessarily lead to misunderstandings (the speakers would only be revealing themselves as non-native speakers of the language, which, by all means, is not a bad thing.)

However, the mere mention of grammar can lead to a total mental shutdown in some adults. Why is that?  Why does ‘grammar’ trigger such extreme emotional responses. Love or hate. Rarely intellectual curiousity.

I do have some ideas of course. It seems so obvious that some might think: why ask? Grammar lessons, tests, “never understood grammar”, “I was SO bad in grammar”; “it was so boring” etc. All related to past school experiences.

When you ask mathematicians what they think about math instruction in school, they all say similarly: mathematics at the university is very different from what they teach in school, not meaning it in the sense that “of course it’s different, it’s university level”. That’s not what they mean. They mean it to be different in a very substantial way. I believe the same might go for ‘grammar’ and language teaching.

I recently found this text on a webpage giving tips for learning English:

Don’t study grammar too much 

This rule might sound strange to many ESL students, but it is one of the most important rules. If you want to pass examinations, then study grammar. However, if you want to become fluent in English, then you should try to learn English without studying the grammar.

Studying grammar will only slow you down and confuse you. You will think about the rules when creating sentences instead of naturally saying a sentence like a native. Remember that only a small fraction of English speakers know more than 20% of all the grammar rules. Many ESL students know more grammar than native speakers. (…)  many of my students know more details about English grammar than I do. I can easily look up the definition and apply it, but I don’t know it off the top of my head.

I often ask my native English friends some grammar questions, and only a few of them know the correct answer. However, they are fluent in English and can read, speak, listen, and communicate effectively.

Do you want to be able to recite the definition of a causative verb, or do you want to be able to speak English fluently?

I totally agree that you should not think of any (more or less adequate rules) when trying to speak English. However, you should understand how a language organizes its meaning. In this sense of the term ‘grammar’ you cannot understand a language without it. That is virtually impossible.You have to study and practise a language’s recurring patterns and regularities, and try to understand the meanings and usages of its forms. Without this you would not be able to gain any sound command of the language. You would just unsystematically string words together or apply the grammar of your native language.

The text above demonstrates a major misunderstanding of the term ‘grammar’. It fails to differentiate between grammar as inherent to any language, grammar as an analytical tool for studying and/learning a language, and pedagogical grammars.The author of the text above uses the terms grammar and grammar rules interchangeably and equates the grammar of English with grammar ‘rules’ most likely learned in school.

Every language has ‘grammar’. Without it, communication and relating to the world would not be possible. In this respect, a language’s grammar can be defined as the way the system organizes its meaning, its underlying systematicity. There are many ways of describing this system; many models, some more convincing than others, but models they all are, not the thing itself.

Languages have regularities and patterns called syntax, certain ways of phrasing lexical items etc. Maybe we can compare language to a natural organism. It has a history of development and change. No authority once sat down and invented a set of rules called language X Y Z.

To illustrate this dual character of the term ‘grammar’, I sometimes give the example of the term ‘anatomy’. Every body has a certain organization of organs and functions that scholars and/or medical scientists have tried to describe as adequatly as possible. The knowledge gained can be found summarized in books called ‘Anatomy of the Body’, in language use sometimes shortened to ‘anatomy’. Thus, we use the word referring to the structure of the body, the ‘thing’ itself, and its model. An anatomy of the body written and illustrated in times before bodies were cut open looked very different from modern ‘anatomies’ today. But the body itself and its anatomy has not changed, just the models have.

Same goes for the term ‘grammar’. Linguists have come up with numerous different models for describing the systems of languages. Pedagical or Teaching Grammars are just one of these, lesser accurate, models of description, meant to simplify and structure for teaching purposes. The notion of rules is used in this context, though I’m not sure how far modern course books of English really do this. But (former) school students seem to believe there to be a set of rules to be learned and followed. If not you get a bad grade.

Because that’s what rules are for: to be followed or else you get santioned. And herein, I suspect, lies the reason for many adults’ strong oppostion towards ‘doing grammar’: the trauma and humiliation they suffered in school when they failed to follow some more or less accurate grammar ‘rules’.

Again: In order to understand or learn the language you need to know its grammar. Every native speaker whose language skills are on a fairly developed level ‘knows’ more grammar than an ES/F learner, not less. He or she just might not have a meta-language to describe it, no model of analysis or presentation. Nevertheless, they are masters of their language and its grammar.

So to come back to the initial question if languages have rules: it depends on how you define ‘rule’. In the sense that the ‘game of communication’ would not work if speakers of a language did not follow the same ‘rules of the game’, maybe. But I prefer to talk of patterns and regularities of a language the learner needs to explore and understand.

On a more advanced level, this also means understanding the difference between facts of the language and choices; between ‘standard’ and variation; between language aspects that are the way they are and cannot (or should not) be changed because this is the way the language expresses meanings – the ‘rules of the game’ if you will.



(People who teach English without having studied linguistics, or any related subject, where you learn to think about the nature of language, different (grammar) models of description, language history and change, dialects and sociolects, language development, language politics etc. are in danger of perpetuating the same attitudes and misconceptions of ‘grammar’ they themselves experienced in school. Studying linguistics (the Science of Language) makes you more sensitive towards judgments of ‘good language’ – ‘bad language’.You learn to take on a more critical view towards any form of presciptivism (telling people how they should speak). You learn that language is the most essential and fascinating feature of humans and should not be spoilt by false notions of right or wrong.)




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

I accept that my given data and my IP address is sent to a server in the USA only for the purpose of spam prevention through the Akismet program.More information on Akismet and GDPR.

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload the CAPTCHA.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.