(1) Grammar is descriptive, not prescriptive
The English language is continually changing, and grammar changes along with it. Even though the grammar of literary English has been relatively stable since the late 19th century, it is still molten.
For example, take the word “baseball.” When the term was first coined in the early 19th century, the correct form was “base ball.” Two words. If you wrote them as one word, your English teacher would have crossed it out scornfully.
But in the late 19th century, probably because the words were used together so often, they entered a period of hyphenation. Now the correct form was “base-ball.” If you wrote them as two words, you were wrong. If you wrote them as one word, you were wrong.
It was only in the 20th century that the correct form became “baseball.” Now, if you write the term as either “base ball” or “base-ball”--both formerly correct forms--you will invite stares.
Other words that have undergone a similar evolution (from two words to hyphenation to one word) include wildlife, bellboy, and downtown
The point? “Rule” may be less accurate than “convention” when we talk about grammar. Moses did not bring unchanging rules of grammar down from Mt. Sinai.
Punctuation practice evolves, as do those involving spelling and pronunciation. Regarding the latter, take the word “combatant.” The second edition of the American Heritage Dictionary, published in the 1960s, informs you that the correct way to pronounce the word is to put the accent on the first syllable. The fifth edition, published in 2011, tells you that correct pronunciation places the accent on the second syllable.
Grammar’s role is less to prescribe than to describe people’s actual practice of language.
With that said, of course, it is important to know and abide by the conventions of one’s own language group.
(2) Not all rules have equal standing
Some rules are worth observing only on special occasions. Thus you use the grammatically correct construction “I shall” (instead of “I will”) when you wish to suggest formality.
Some “rules” aren’t worth observing at all. As you will discover in careful reading, what educated and intelligent writers of first-rate prose do is not always what grammatical bluebloods insist that they should.
In his excellent book Writing with Style, for example, John Trimble demonstrates that the following seven “nevers” refer to writerly choices which traditionalists will say are wrong but which are indeed acceptable in serious prose (as long as you recognize, of course, that traditionalist readers will think less of you for making them).
The seven “superstitions”:
1 Never begin a sentence with and or but.
2 Never use contractions.
3 Never refer to the reader as you.
4 Never use the first-person pronoun, I.
5 Never end the sentence with a preposition.
6 Never split an infinitive.
7 Never write a paragraph containing only a single sentence.
Joseph Williams, in Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace, agrees with Trimble’s position and suggests that while there are real rules that you should always observe, such as those involved in the grammar errors listed below (or, for example, a rule like “Never use a double negative”), there are also “optional” rules (e.g., those involving split infinitives, the use of shall, ending a sentence with a preposition) as well as non-rules which have somehow achieved the status of rules in some people’s minds (e.g., those involving beginning a sentence with and, but, or because).
If you’re interested in learning more, consult these two books. Even if you aren’t, be aware that grammar is not the monolith that you may have been presented with earlier in your education.
The stance you should take toward your own grammatical practice
Probably the best approach is to not worry about grammatical correctness in the early stages of the writing process. When inventing, invent. When writing, write. Don’t get bogged down in minutiae.
But, when it comes to revising, when you're both sharpening your meaning and translating your prose from writer‑based to reader‑based . . . that is the time to give some conscious thought to grammar.
Most Guilford students, especially after first-year English, have adequate grammatical knowledge. When they make errors, it is usually because they have not exercised proper care. In other words, they have not proofread carefully (a task best performed separately, when the prose is cold on the page).
It is also safe to say, however, that all students, whether incoming first-year students or seniors, have grammatical glitches in their writing. No surprise there, because English grammar is amazingly complex. For the good writer, the problem may be one that most readers will never notice‑‑incorrect comma use with introductory sentence elements, for example. For the less experienced writer, however, the problem may involve more serious errors that diminish the writer's authority and may even interfere with meaning. At the least, such error represents unnecessary and unwanted distraction for the reader.
It should be every student's goal to eliminate this sort of distraction from his or her writing. And that means eliminating the glitches.
One profitable use of first-year English--and beyond--should be to look at your writing objectively and, with the help of your instructor, to identify and eliminate distracting grammatical choices.
If not now, when?