Who says so?

January 23, 2018 12:00 am | Updated 03:32 am IST

Today, instead of focussing on fine grammar points, let’s talk about the larger picture

When we are refining our knowledge of English, we sometimes get frustrated and start asking, “Who makes all these complicated rules?”

In some countries there are academies that decide whether to allow or ban new words from their languages. They decide when it is time to modernise their spelling or punctuation. But English is spoken in many countries, and none of those countries has ever had such an academy or decision-making body. Over the centuries, new words came into English from Europe, Asia, Africa, and North and South America. Sometimes those words kept their original spellings and pronunciations, and sometimes they changed a little. There was no language police to control all these imports, so that’s why we have a huge, chaotic vocabulary and such variable pronunciation and spelling.

Because of all this free movement of words, English fits every purpose and has become widely used. Once in a while, a writer or editor or scholar feels it would be helpful to explain some of the patterns of English to the people who use it, and especially to young students who are learning it. Such a person may write a column (like this one) or a book. If you know the rules, you can better understand what others are saying. (It’s a bit like driving. Isn’t it much easier when all drivers follow basic rules?)

Writers of grammar and language books don’t want to lay down commandments but rather to describe how most people use the language. Like all languages, English keeps changing. A grammar book from 1950 may not help your spoken and written English today. For that you are better off finding a modern English grammar book.

On the other hand, the editors and publishers who compile your modern dictionary cannot simply throw out words that are not used today. If they did that, how would you understand classical literature and old documents? Such words are still listed, but they may be followed by the note “arch.” or “obs.” That’s short for “archaic” or “obsolete”, which means no longer used. You may still find those words in books, but you will probably not want to use them in your own writing.

So what should you do when you hear about a grammar rule? Should you follow it or ignore it? That depends on your purpose in studying the language in the first place.

If you hesitate to speak English and you’d like to be more confident, it may help you to know the rules. But you can’t learn all the rules and then start speaking English.

That would be impossible. (In this sense, speaking English is not at all like driving!) Instead, keep using the language as you perfect your skills. Speak as often as you can, with friends, with parents, with teachers. Listen to how they form their sentences, and pick up clues from them. You can even imitate whole sentences. After all, that is how people learn a new language. Don’t be ashamed when you make a mistake. Say to yourself and to your friends, “I am still learning.”

That’s true of anyone who uses the English language—your teachers, older students in your school, or even people whose only language is English. We are always learning.

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