Children can learn any language they are exposed to. Take a moment to consider how remarkable that ability is. If you put any infant born without developmental disabilities in any culture, that child will learn the language—or languages—he or she hears spoken. Ethnic origin makes no difference to this fluency. A child of Japanese parents raised by English speakers will grow up speaking fluent English. A child of European ancestry will learn to speak perfect Navajo if raised among Navajo speakers. And no special training is necessary. By the time children reach school age, they have already mastered the basic structures and vocabulary of their native language, even if their parents give them no special instruction.

Adults, by contrast, lack this ability. Although a lucky few can absorb new languages easily, most people require laborious study to learn a new language after childhood. Many immigrants, for example, live in their new country for years and never completely master the local language, even after making sustained efforts to study it. Pronunciation in particular can be a continuing source of difficulty, even when the speaker is otherwise fluent. Henry Kissinger, a professor and former Secretary of State whose written English is sophisticated and complex, betrays his German origins every time he speaks. And he immigrated to the United States at the age of 15.

This contrast between children and adults suggests that there is something biological to language, that it is not just an arbitrary invention of human cultures. Children seem biologically primed to acquire a language as part of their development and lose this ability as they mature. What is this biological basis of language? Are there basic similarities among languages that make it easier for children to master them, or do languages vary without limit? What are the rules of a language, and how do people learn those rules? These are a few of the basic questions that the subject of linguistics tries to answer.

Linguistics is the study of the basic nature and structure of human language. It tries to explain the fundamentals of how language works. That focus means that linguistics attends to different aspects of language than do the other language arts with which you may be more familiar. For example, one reason people study languages is to learn how to communicate with other speakers of that language, as in the classes in Spanish, French, or other languages that most high-school students take. Linguists, of course, do need to study languages, but communication with others isn't typically their primary goal. A linguist trying to explain some basic feature of language may examine hundreds of languages from all over the world—relying on descriptions of these languages by specialists—without being able to communicate in more than a handful of them.

Linguistics also distinguishes itself from the other language arts by its scientific approach. Like other sciences, linguistics constructs theories and tests the validity of these theories against empirical evidence. Linguists for the most part study how people actually use language, whether or not that use matches what schoolbooks claim is the "correct" form of the language. Linguistics wants to explain things the way they actually are, not to change them according to some preconceived notion. Consider, for example, an utterance such as

(1) Me and Sally ain't never been friends.

Grammar books like those you probably used in high school would dismiss this sentence as ungrammatical, telling you that ain't is not a word, that me mustn't be used in the subject of a sentence, and that you can't use two negatives together. Yet people utter this sort of sentence every day despite repeated and strenuous objections from teachers. An adequate description of English must explain this fact.

Descriptive vs. Prescriptive

Linguistics takes a descriptive approach to language: it tries to explain things as they actually are, not as we wish them to be. When we study language descriptively, we try to find the unconscious rules that people follow when they say things like sentence (1). The schoolbook approach to language is typically prescriptive. It tries to tell you how you should speak and write.

Notice that there is a place for both description and prescription in language study. For example, when adults learn a foreign language, they typically want someone to tell them how to speak, in other words to prescribe a particular set of rules to follow, and expect a teacher or book to set forth those rules. But how do teachers know what rules to prescribe? At some point in time, someone had to describe the language and infer those rules. Prescription, in other words, can only occur after the language has been described, and good prescription depends on adequate description. We obviously don't want to be teaching people the wrong things about language.

In an ideal world, descriptive and prescriptive approaches to language would follow this harmonious relationship: linguists would describe the rules of a language, and pedagogues would use those descriptions to make textbooks to teach language learners. In the real world, however, practitioners of the two approaches often separate themselves into hostile camps. Prescriptivists accuse descriptivists of being anarchists who want to do away with all rules of language. Descriptivists accuse prescriptivists of uninformed bigotry. With each side posting guards at the ramparts to repel the enemy, both tend to ignore the work and concerns of the other. Grammar textbooks used in K-12 education often neglect the findings of linguistics and instead copy outdated, factually incorrect material from older textbooks. For their part, linguists frequently treat prescriptivism as a bad word but fail (with some honorable exceptions) to show how their abstract theorizing is relevant to language teaching.

The conflicts between prescriptivism and descriptivism originates in a difference in focus: scientific study versus teaching. But that difference hardly explains why the two groups are so hostile. Other disciplines don't have a similar divide. High school physics teachers don't scorn the abstruse theorizing of university professors in quantum mechanics or string theory, even if those theories are far beyond the level of high school physics. They take it for granted that there is a continuity between the basic—and simplified—principles taught in introductory classes and the work that cutting-edge research scientists perform. Why is the study of language different?

One reason may be the emotional investment we all have in language. Language is more than a neutral medium for transmitting a message. It has washed over us like a river continually since birth. We use it constantly. It shapes who we are. Think back to your earliest memories. Can you ever remember a time when you were without language? Identity and language twine about each other so tightly that they are impossible to separate. Children of immigrant families, for example, often associate the language of their home with warmth and strong personal connections, with the deepest, private sense of who they are, in contrast to the formal public language of school and the outside world.

Language serves as a symbol of group identity. With the words we use and the way we pronounce them, we send signals to others—conscious and unconscious—about where we come from and how we see ourselves. Children, and adults for that matter, will adopt slang terms to show that they are hip, part of the in crowd. Some people view English as the unifying force of America. According to this perspective, the major thread holding a diverse society together is language. Those who stress this point emphasize the need for immigrants to master English, and sometimes insist that English should be the only language used in public life in the United States.

You don't have to accept this conclusion yourself to see that the choice of language involves deep questions of who we are and how we envision our relationship with society at large. For that reason, pronouncements about language can provoke strong reactions. When someone tells us that the way we use or understand language is inadequate, it's only natural to bristle. A challenge to our language can be tantamount to a challenge to our inner selves. So when disagreements arise over how we use language, the emotional stakes are higher. Over the years, we have developed a strong intuitive sense of what language is. Most of us probably find ourselves much more detached from questions such as, "How did the universe begin?" or "What happens if you travel at the speed of light?" If our assumptions about physics are wrong, we don't take it personally.

The Multiple Meanings of 'Grammar'

The consequences of these clashing assumptions are nowhere more stark than in the confusion over the term grammar, which has various, somewhat conflicting meanings depending on who uses the term. Grammar, at its core, refers to the rules of language. But how these rules are imagined and what these rules encompass can vary greatly from definition to definition. As a result, the common understanding of grammar differs in subtle but important ways from the linguistic sense of the term.

The traditional understanding of grammar—the one we associate with the prescriptivist position—began in ancient Greece and Rome. For hundreds of years, grammar was synonymous with the study of Greek and Latin.[1] These languages were regarded as perfect—or nearly so—and their grammatical structures were taken to be universal forms by which all "vulgar" languages should be judged. It was not until the seventeenth century that writers began to turn their attention systematically to the grammar of English itself, and when they did so, they applied the structures that they had learned studying classical languages to English.

English, of course, differs greatly from Latin, and the grammatical categories developed to describe Latin did not always fit perfectly with English. How the early English grammarians reacted to these difficulties depended on the individual inclination and aptitude of the writers, but most tended to assume that when the two languages differed, it was English that was corrupt and in need of reform.

The grammarians who shaped traditional English grammar were largely amateurs, people of no particular training, qualified chiefly by their interest in the subject. Some had a strong intuitive understanding of their subject; others were little more than hacks. They bequeathed later generations a mixed heritage. On the one hand, linguists continue to use much of their terminology, although they have refined many details. On the other hand, the emphasis on the perfectibility of language encouraged a severity towards the day-to-day language of many people that can still be seen in many writing handbooks and in the way many people view language errors.

Traditional definitions of grammar do not vary much. Samuel Kirkham, author of one of the best-selling grammar books in nineteenth-century America, defines grammar as "the art of speaking and writing the English language with propriety"[2]

The first thing to notice is that grammar is seen as an art. In other words, the overriding goal of traditional grammar is to produce aesthetically pleasing English. Traditional grammar doesn't try to explain the most basic aspects of language—the point at which linguistics begins. It takes the basics for granted. Traditional grammar is not about speaking any old form of English, but one particular form—a proper one.

Kirkham's word "propriety" suggests that grammar is a form of social decorum and therefore that grammar involves following rules. And so, as even cursory thought will show, language must. Without some agreement as to the rules, there could be no communication. But just what do we mean by a rule?

The rules in traditional grammar books comprise a list of dos and don'ts: make subjects agree with verbs, don't split infinitives, don't end a sentence with a preposition, and so on. Notably, many of these rules are regularly violated by native speakers. Traditional grammar books spend little time with rules such as "put adjectives before nouns." And they would never think to explain the ungrammaticality of a sentence like

(2) *The boss would like to may see you immediately.[3]

Native speakers never make mistakes with such structures, and so traditional grammar books ignore them. The lists of rules do not so much explain how a sentence of English is put together as constrain what is permissible. As an unfortunate consequence of this approach, traditional rules form a semi-random collection of scattered bits of information, presented without system. And anyone who has ever tried to memorize lists of unconnected information knows how hard it is to retain all that trivia.

Linguists, like the writers of prescriptive grammar books, also assume that language is rule governed. When linguists speak of grammatical rules, however, they generally mean something different. To a linguist, grammatical rules mean one of two things. First, grammar can signify the internal, largely unconscious system that we use to combine sounds into words and words into larger meaningful units. Native speakers learn most of this system intuitively, without explicit training, when they acquire the language as children. To learn a language this way involves a tacit knowledge of grammar distinct from knowledge about grammar. Knowledge about grammar implies an explicit understanding of these normally unconscious processes. This explicit knowledge is not a natural process and is the subject of this course. When people say "I don't know any grammar," what they really mean is that they lack conscious knowledge about grammar.

Because these rules are inside our minds, they are not directly accessible to study. We cannot peer inside someone's skull to observe words being combined into sentences. So in addition to grammar as an internal system, linguists also use the term grammatical rule to refer to a formal mechanism that tries to explain how language is generated. Sometimes these rules are even presented in the form of equations using a quasi-algebraic notation.

In many ways, these rules are analogous to equations in other sciences, since they provide a formal description of something that happens. Also as in other sciences, these rules are hypotheses about the way language works. In other words, they make predictions about future actions that we can test. If the hypothesis doesn't match the observed results, it needs to be revised or abandoned. In a similar way, an equation of motion in physics lets us both describe what we have already seen—the path of a flying arrow, for example—and predict the path that future arrows will take.

The analogy to laws of physics is not perfect, though. For one thing, the rules of language are not immutable. Every language has its own set of rules, and these rules change over time, which explains why Shakespeare's language seems very different from our own. Gravitation does not work differently in France than it does in the United States, nor did objects fall differently after Galileo refuted Aristotle's old theory.[4] Unlike physical laws, you can violate rules of grammar, although with some loss of intelligibility.

(3) *Her slept the bed until 10 o'clock.

No native speaker of English would consider sentence (3) to be well-formed. Clearly it violates some basic grammatical rules. But we can imagine someone—say a non-native speaker—uttering it, and we can figure out what is intended with a little more work than normal. But just try to violate the law of gravity!

It's important to remember that linguistic rules are formal abstractions. That is, by referring to a rule, we are not claiming that anyone is consciously applying it to produce language. We don't even need to assume that the rules are the unconscious steps that the brain performs when putting together language, although linguists would obviously like to know just what those steps are. Rules create a model that can be studied. Similarly, when we say a projectile follows a path, we mean we can describe where it goes, not that it chooses a particular course, or solves an equation in order to tell where to go next.

If linguistic rules resemble scientific equations, traditional prescriptive rules resemble table manners. You can eat your food perfectly well if you put your elbows on the table or chew with your mouth open. Many people do so all their lives. But if you want to join the local country club, watch out. Certain social circles expect you to follow the rules for table etiquette, and may exclude you if you violate them. Likewise, if you break prescriptive rules of language use, you will still be understood, but some may put you down as uneducated.

Like table manners, prescriptive rules are imposed by an outside authority. Traditional grammar puts great stock in authorities. Something is right or wrong because a book or a teacher tells us so. But who gets to decide? Some countries have a central body, such as the Academie Française in France, which pronounces on disputed issues. Whether such academies have any influence on actual language use is doubtful, but in any event neither the United States nor any other English-speaking country has such a group. Instead, prescriptions about grammar are made by "arbiters of usage." This group is not an organized body; rather it consists of anyone in a position to influence how other people use language: authors, editors, journalists such as William Saffire, writers of grammar textbooks and dictionaries. But those who have perhaps the greatest influence on the general public are classroom teachers. They are the ones who enforce the rules they believe are important when they correct student writing and speech. Even people who claim they don't remember, or never learned, any grammar in school can usually recall teachers with grammatical pet peeves who consistently criticized students for violating some rule or other.

Given the heterogeneous nature of this group, pronouncements on English usage vary widely from one another. Read any two usage manuals and you will likely find they contradict each other in many places. If you think about it, that's an odd situation. Prescriptive grammar begins with the assumption that there is a single standard form of the language which is correct. Why then can't the supposed experts agree? We're entitled to ask what criteria these authorities use to pass their own judgments. One purpose of this book is to equip you with the necessary tools to make your own judgments about issues involving language.


[1] The earliest grammarians were Greek, and Latin grammars were first developed in antiquity following Greek models. But in Western Europe, from the Middle Ages through the Renaissance, practically all educated people understood Latin but very few knew any Greek. Latin, therefore, had a much greater influence than Greek in the development of English grammatical teaching.

[2] Samuel Kirkham, English Grammar in Familiar Lectures, 12th ed. 1829.

[3] By convention an asterisk marks a sentence that is descriptively ungrammatical, that is, which native speakers intuitively judge to be unacceptable.

[4] Aristotle had claimed that a heavier object would fall faster than a light one. Galileo showed that they fell at the same speed, although not—as legend has it—by dropping anything off the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

Judging Grammaticality

Both prescriptivists and descriptivists often make statements about whether or not a particular utterance is grammatical. For a prescriptivist, deciding that an utterance is ungrammatical is the first step in eliminating error. For a descriptivist, observing what native speakers do not do gives important clues to understanding the tacit rules of the language. But given the difference between descriptive and prescriptive rules, we have to be careful to specify what kind of grammar we have in mind.

If we call something descriptively grammatical, we mean that it obeys the usual practice of native speakers. Conversely, something that is descriptively ungrammatical violates the usual practice of native speakers. When linguists use the term ungrammatical by itself, they almost always mean descriptively ungrammatical. By convention, we mark something that is descriptively ungrammatical with an asterisk (*). Sentences (2) and (3) above illustrate sentences that are descriptively ungrammatical.

A common way that linguists determine whether something is descriptively grammatical is simply by asking a native speaker if the utterance sounds right or not. If we are studying our native language, we can be our own informant—in other words we can use our intuition and knowledge of how we and others speak to decide what is grammatical. This introspection makes it seem as if judgments about grammaticality are simple. But there are several factors that complicate the process. First, it isn't the case that anything which comes out of someone's mouth counts as descriptively grammatical. People do make slips of the tongue, or change their minds about what they were going to say halfway through the utterance, and the result can be word salad. The point is that such slips are not regular. They do not form an internally consistent set of rules. Remember that grammar, whether descriptive or prescriptive, implies following a rule of some kind. Second, native speakers will occasionally disagree in their intuitions. For example, the presence of regional or ethnic dialects means that something can be grammatical in one variety of English and ungrammatical in another. Despite such differences, native speakers do show a large measure of consistency for most features of language.

If we call something prescriptively grammatical, we mean that it obeys the rules of usage which are listed in handbooks and taught in school.[1] Conversely, a prescriptively ungrammatical utterance violates those rules. In almost all cases, if something is descriptively ungrammatical, it is also prescriptively ungrammatical. That is, the authors of traditional grammar books would object to it too. In these cases, we can simply call the statement ungrammatical and mark it with an asterisk. But often prescriptive rules do not represent the way people ordinarily speak. In some cases, prescriptively grammatical utterances will sound formal, uncommon.

(4) !Whom shall I say is calling?

People may not commonly speak this way, but we still recognize sentence (4) as part of one register of English. We will indicate such sentences, which are only found in formal contexts, with an exclamation point (!).

Detecting a prescriptive violation, when it is not also a descriptive violation can be hard because you cannot trust your instincts. Unless someone has taught you the rule, you may not notice the violation at all. Moreover, different handbooks differ in the rules they present. What may be prescriptively ungrammatical according to one book is just fine according to another. If we need to indicate something that is prescriptively ungrammatical but descriptively observed among native speakers, we mark it with the pound sign (#).

(5) #Give Al Gore and I a chance.[2]

The final logical relationship between prescriptive and descriptive grammar—a statement that is prescriptively grammatical but descriptively ungrammatical—is possible, although rare. Such sentences follow prescriptive rules literally, but the result is something that no native speaker would ever utter. For example, many traditional grammar books claim that you must use a singular pronoun to refer to the indefinite pronouns. The following rule is found in Warriner's English Grammar, one of the most widely used high-school grammar books of the second half of the twentieth century:

"The words each, either, neither, one, everyone, everybody, no one, nobody, anyone, anybody, someone, somebody are referred to by a singular pronoun—he, him, his, she, her, hers, it, its."[3]

Following this rule, we are supposed to write sentences such as (6a) rather than (6b), the latter of which reflects the way that most people actually use English:

(6a) !If someone calls, tell him I'll be out of town until Tuesday.
(6b) #If someone calls, tell them I'll be out of town until Tuesday.

But obeying this rule can, in some instances, lead to nonsense.

(7) ?Everyone in the room was speaking Spanish, so I spoke Spanish with him.

There is no way that him in (7) can be taken to refer to everyone. If we're approaching this rule from the point of view of a linguist, it appears flawed because it makes a false prediction that (7) should be grammatical.[4] There is no special symbol for this situation, although the question mark can be used for any sentence whose grammatical status is ambiguous.


[1] One complicating factor in deciding whether or not something is prescriptively grammatical is that grammar books and English teachers often disagree about what is correct. For simplicity's sake, we will assume that any rule which is widely found in many usage books counts.

[2] This sentence, uttered by Bill Clinton, violates the prescriptive rule that the case of the pronoun inside a coordination ("Al Gore and I") should be the same that you would use if the pronoun appeared alone (i.e., "give me a chance", hence "Give Al Gore and me a chance.").

[3] John E. Warriner and Francis Griffith, English Grammar and Composition, rev. ed., Harcourt, Brace, and World (1965), p. 100.

[4] Warriner's suggests that for such sentences, it's acceptable to ignore the rule, but begs the question of why we should believe that the rule is correct in the first place if it creates such problems.

Language Variation

We often speak of language as a monolithic entity that exists separately from its speakers. And while it is true that writing does give language an existence that is partly independent of people, language is fundamentally a mental process, existing in the minds of its speakers. And as individuals vary, so does their language. Languages vary at every level. Speakers of a language vary depending on their geographical origin, class, gender, and ethnicity. Even individuals do not speak a single form of language. Everyone has multiple styles and can shift the way they express themselves. For example, you probably don't speak the same way when delivering an oral report in class as you do chatting on the phone with your friends. All this variation gives rise, over time, to changes in the whole language. No matter what variety of English you speak, it is different from the varieties spoken in Shakespeare's time. It is even different from the language spoken in the early part of the twentieth century. Language change is natural, inevitable, and unstoppable. The only languages that do not change, that show no variation, are dead languages.

If change is inevitable, that implies we must look to the way people use language now to establish our notions of correctness. The prescriptive tradition pays lip service to the inevitability of change. The standard most frequently offered is that of "present, national, and reputable use."[1] That is, the usage of highly-regarded contemporary authors which is free of regional peculiarities. But often, the prescriptive tradition tends to treat change as bad, as evidence of corruption. It is conservative, clinging to older forms of the language well after they have died out in ordinary speech. For example, textbooks throughout the nineteenth century forced students to learn the old second person singular pronouns thou, thee, and thine, even though all but a handful of English speakers had abandoned their use over a century and a half earlier. Today, traditional grammar books continue to insist that students use whom in the appropriate place, although whom would seem to be defunct if we examine how people actually speak when they aren't consciously thinking about schoolbook rules.


[1] First formulated by George Cambell in his Philosophy of Rhetoric (1776). See Albert C. Baugh and Thomas Cable, A History of the English Language, 4th ed. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1993), pp. 278-9.

Language Equality

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the notion was widespread that some languages—generally presumed to be those of peoples with a primitive physical culture—either lacked a grammar completely, or had a very simple grammar. Versions of this story persist today, claiming that there is some tribe in a remote region of the world—the depths of the Amazon, or the highlands of New Guinea—who have a language of only a hundred words and no grammar. This myth was exploded once linguists began to study these languages and discovered that they had grammatical systems every bit as regular and elaborate as any language of a culture with a civilization stretching back thousands of years. Although the grammatical structures of some languages are very different from those of English, every language has a grammar.

What is true of languages also holds true of dialects within a language. Occasionally, you may hear it said that some dialect, such as African American Vernacular English (AAVE) or Puerto Rican Spanish is ungrammatical or deficient. In truth, though, these dialects follow internally consistent rules. That is, they have their own consistent grammatical systems, but ones that differ from the grammars of other speakers of English or Spanish.

Sometimes, it is claimed that some thoughts cannot be expressed in a particular language or contrarily that an idea can only be uttered in one language. If true, that would presumably make some languages better than others. But such claims turn out to be hard to substantiate. What does it mean to say that a concept cannot be expressed in a language? Often, people seem to mean that one language has a particular word for a concept that another language lacks. For example, German has the term schadenfreude, which means "taking pleasure in the misfortune of others." Some English speakers borrow this word when they want to express the idea. Does that mean that we can't express the idea in English? The very act of explaining what the word means demonstrates that it is possible to express the idea. True, it may not be always possible to translate an idea word-for-word, but paraphrase and other techniques will get the job done. Languages are flexible enough to adapt and expand to the needs of speakers. And if speakers of a language need a particular concept often enough, they will create a word to express it, either by relying on native word-creation processes or by borrowing the term from another language. Indeed, enough English speakers have found schadenfreude to be a useful term that it can now be found in the larger English dictionaries, although it still has the feel of a foreign word. Over three quarters of the words in Modern English, particularly the more learned terms, are borrowed from other languages.

Other arguments for the intrinsic superiority of one language over another make equally little sense. Language is fundamentally an arbitrary convention. There is no principled reason why the animal that English speakers label dog must be identified with that particular string of sounds. Speakers of other languages get along just fine with entirely different strings of sound: chien in French, perro in Spanish, gae in Korean, naayi in Tamil,[1] and so on. It would be unreasonable to say that one of these words was a more logical fit for the animal.

Similarly, we would laugh if someone asked us which is better, to put your adjectives before your nouns (as English does) or to put them after (as does Spanish). The question is fatuous. The order that each language follows is simply a convention that must be followed if we wish to be understood in that language. Evaluations of better or worse don't enter into the picture.

What holds for individual words and rules of a language holds for the whole collection of words and rules that constitute the language: there is no linguistic basis for declaring one language better than another. For the same reasons, it's impossible to find objective reasons to declare a particular dialect of a language superior to another dialect. This equality of dialects is important to stress because traditional grammar typically values one dialect as proper and denigrates others as inferior corruptions. Labels like "substandard English," which are sometimes used in older works to label certain dialects of English, reflect such attitudes. In this view, correct grammar is an elite property of a few "correct" speakers. When traditional grammarians appeal to usage in order to justify their rules, they do not invoke the general usage of most people. They select a handful of prestigious writers as their models. Linguists try not to privilege the language of one group over another just because that group has the prestige in society. That distinction is social, not linguistic.

Most linguists do accept the practical usefulness of having a standard form, especially in writing, and virtually all conform to the traditional notions of standard English in their professional work. But one can adopt a standard as an arbitrary convenience without bringing along with it elitist assumptions that using it makes you better than those who do not. Rather than conceiving of prescriptive violations as "errors" or "wrong", many linguists speak of sentences as being acceptable or unacceptable. Teachers, for example, will often tell students "ain't is not a word." In a linguistic sense, of course, ain't certainly is a word. Among many groups, however, particularly those with power, it is not a socially acceptable one. That is, a linguist would find a sentence such as

(8) #They ain't coming.

to be perfectly grammatical, but unacceptable in many contexts, such as formal writing, a job interview, etc.


[1] Tamil is one of the major languages of India and is mostly spoken in southern India and the northern portion of Sri Lanka. It is also spoken by immigrant communities in various countries around the world.