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Encyclopedia > Disputed English grammar

A case of disputed English grammar arises when there is disagreement about whether a given construction constitutes correct English. The English language is a West Germanic language that originates in England. ...

Such disagreements are often quite impassioned; speakers are often very defensive of the rules of grammar that they learned in school. Even when there is no evidence of a dispute over whether a construction is correct, English speakers sometimes experience anger on encountering grammatical errors.[1], [2]



There are a number of fairly long-standing cases of disputed English grammar (some of which are summarized below), and each has its own peculiarities; nonetheless, people use, and historically have used, many of the same arguments in justifying their positions in various cases. Common arguments include the following:

  • Since the rules of grammar are largely conventional, constructions seen as older and better established are often seen as superior; by contrast, those seen as recent innovations (see Neologism) are often criticized, usually because they are originally associated with speakers who are uneducated or unfamiliar with the traditional rules.
  • Use by widely respected authors often lends credibility to a construction (but not always; for example, not if an author is perceived as intentionally writing in a non-standard style, such as an eye dialect). Conversely, in a dispute between two competing constructions, an author's use of one construction may be perceived as a point against the other.
  • In cases involving the syntax to be used with specific words (e.g., the preposition that is to be used after a given adjective), the etymology of the word might be seen as supporting one construction over another. (See List of English words with disputed usage.)
  • Since English has no central language authority, common usage is often seen as defining correctness: Many people feel that if a usage is sufficiently common, it is by definition correct.
  • Historically, Latin was highly respected for its elegance, and many current points of dispute (notably the injunctions against split infinitives and preposition stranding) involve rules of Latin that were transposed onto English in an effort to make English more elegant. This line of argument is no longer common.
  • Often speakers will argue that a certain usage is inherently more logical than another, or that it is more consistent with other (undisputed) usages.
  • Since the purpose of language is communication, the more widely and easily a construction is understood, the more likely a speaker is to accept and defend it.
  • Constructions that can produce ambiguities in some circumstances are sometimes seen as best avoided in all circumstances.
  • Perceived hypercorrections — the avoidance of a usage that the speaker thinks is incorrect but that the hearer does not — are nearly always viewed negatively, and often seen as pretentious.

That said, speakers frequently do not consider it necessary to justify their positions on a usage, taking as a priori that a given usage is correct or incorrect. Also, such arguments are often complicated by speakers' reliance on their faulty impressions of linguistic facts, such as the impression that an expression is newer than it really is.[3] A neologism is a word, term, or phrase which has been recently created (coined) — often to apply to new concepts, or to reshape older terms in newer language form. ... Eye dialect is a common name for the writers practice of using nonstandard (or incorrect) spellings to indicate nonstandard pronunciation in dialogue. ... It has been suggested that this article or section be merged with adposition. ... An adjective is a part of speech which modifies a noun, usually describing it or making its meaning more specific. ... Etymology is the study of the origins of words. ... Some English words are often used in ways that are contentious among writers on usage and other prescriptivists. ... Latin is an ancient Indo-European language originally spoken in the region around Rome called Latium. ... A split infinitive is a grammatical construction in the English language where a word or phrase, usually an adverb or adverbial phrase, occurs between the marker to and the bare infinitive (uninflected) form of the verb. ... Preposition stranding, sometimes called P-stranding, is the syntactic construction in which a preposition appears without an object. ... Hypercorrection is (1) elaborate, prescriptively based correction of common language usage, often introduced in an attempt to avoid vulgarity or informality, that results in wording commonly considered clumsier than the usual, colloquial usage (for example, in English, adherence to the proscription against split infinitives or the ending of a clause...

Prescription and description

One very common clash is between prescriptivist approaches, which seek to prescribe how English should be spoken, and descriptivist approaches, which seek how to describe how English is spoken. One can imagine two extreme positions, one being that even if every sentence of actual English used a construction, that construction could still be incorrect, and the other being that any English sentence that is ever uttered is part of the English language and hence by definition correct.[4] In practice, however, speakers lie between the two extremes, believing that since English changes with time and is governed in large measure by convention, a construction must be considered correct once it is universal, but also that a given sentence can be "incorrect" in that it violates the conventions of English. In linguistics, prescription is the laying down or prescribing of normative rules for the use of a language. ...

Different forms of English

One complicating factor is that there are many different forms of English, often with different conventions; what is plainly grammatical in one form may be plainly ungrammatical in another.

English internationally

English is spoken worldwide, but the English of one country is not always the English of another; for example, in addition to the differences in accent, spelling, and vocabulary, there are many points of grammar where American dialects and British ones differ. Ordinarily, speakers will accept many national dialects as "correct," but may deem only one to be correct in a given setting, in the same way that an English-speaker might regard French as correct without considering it as correct English. Nonetheless, disputes can sometimes arise; for example, in India it is a matter of some debate whether American, British, or Indian English is the best form for use in India.[5] In linguistics, an accent is a pronunciation characteristic of a particular group of people relative to another group. ... Proper spelling is the writing of a word or words with all necessary letters and diacritics present in an accepted, conventional order. ... A vocabulary is a set of words known to a person or other entity, or that are part of a specific language. ... To meet Wikipedias quality standards, this article or section may require cleanup. ...

Regional dialects and ethnolects

In contrast to their general high level of tolerance for the dialects of other English-speaking countries, American English speakers often express disdain for features of certain regional dialects, such as Southern English's use of y'all as the second-person plural personal pronoun. (Such disdain is not restricted to points of grammar; speakers often criticize regional accents and vocabulary as well.) Image File history File links Nuvola_apps_browser. ... Motto: (traditional) In God We Trust (official, 1956–present) Anthem: The Star-Spangled Banner Capital Washington, D.C. Largest city New York City Official language(s) None at the federal level; English de facto Government Federal Republic  - President George W. Bush (R)  - Vice President Dick Cheney (R) Independence - Declared - Recognized... Southern American English is a group of dialects of the English language spoken throughout the Southern region of the United States, from northern Virginia and central Kentucky to the Gulf Coast, and from the Atlantic coast to central Texas. ... In the Southern United States dialects of American English and in Appalachian English, the term yall, a contraction of you all, serves as the vernacular second-person plural pronoun. ...

Similarly, seemingly due to a deep misunderstanding of the nature of African-American Vernacular English (Ebonics), many Americans do not view it as a legitimate language form, viewing it as lazy English, as slang, or as inherently ungrammatical.[6] However, while it obviously makes no sense to say that a given dialect is ungrammatical, it can be said that many features of Ebonics are not grammatical in Standard English (and vice versa). African-American Vernacular English (AAVE), also called Ebonics, Black English, or Black English Vernacular (BEV) is a dialect of American English. ... Standard English is a general term for a form of written and spoken English that is considered the model for educated people by native English speakers. ...

In both cases, arguments must center around questions of what constitutes Standard English; for example, since fairly divergent dialects from many different countries are widely accepted as Standard English, it is not always clear why certain regional dialects, some very similar to their standard counterparts, are not.


Different constructions are acceptable in different registers of English; for example, a given construction will often be seen as too formal or too informal for a given situation. In linguistics, a register is a subset of a language used for a particular purpose or in a particular social setting. ...

Speakers do not always distinguish between "correct" English and the English of formal registers; for example, they might say that a given construction is incorrect, and unacceptable in formal writing, but acceptable in ordinary writing or in everyday speech. Alternatively, they might say that a given construction is correct, and acceptable in ordinary writing or in everyday speech, but that it is too informal for some uses. Whereas linguists will often describe a construction as being correct in a certain register but not in another, English speakers as a whole tend to view "correct English" as a single entity — either viewing informal registers as allowing deviations from correctness, or viewing formal registers as imposing additional syntactic constraints beyond mere correctness, or both.

See also

The following are articles about various disputed usages:

Other relevant articles include: The double copula, also known as the double is, is the usage in the English language of two successive copulas when only one is necessary. ... In casual English, the second person pronoun you often takes on the additional role of a generic pronoun. ... Preposition stranding, sometimes called P-stranding, is the syntactic construction in which a preposition appears without an object. ... Singular they, sometimes called epicene they, is the usage in the English language of the gender-neutral third-person plural pronoun they and its inflected forms — they, them, their, theirs, themselves (or themself) — to refer to a single person, often of indeterminate sex, as for example in: Have you ever... A split infinitive is a grammatical construction in the English language where a word or phrase, usually an adverb or adverbial phrase, occurs between the marker to and the bare infinitive (uninflected) form of the verb. ... // Introduction The subjunctive mood (sometimes referred to as the conjunctive mood) is a grammatical mood of the verb that expresses wishes, commands (in subordinate clauses), emotion, possibility, judgment, necessity and statements that are contrary to fact. ...

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