Tag Archives: Grammar

Beer: English Grammar and When to Follow the Rules

29 Jul
A wreath Kolsch Beer - LA Times of Kölsch.

Image via Wikipedia

Six years ago Marcus wrote a blog post that presented English grammar “as an envelope of suggestions rather than a tight box of persnickety rules.”  He took his cue from Saul Bellow, who once used “which” when he should (grammatically speaking) have used “that.” As Bellow said, “‘Which’ sounded better than ‘that,’ and I do go by sounds as well as by grammar.”

Tonight we were chatting, and somehow began discussing words that represent no fixed quantity and thus cannot have a singular or plural form.  For example, deer never becomes deers and fish never becomes fishes (except when Three Dog Night sings “Joy to the World.”)

And beer never becomes beers, unless it is explicitly quantified (“I’ll have two beers, please.”) But Marcus didn’t know that because people use “beers” loosely all the time.  Pi Wen strongly argued that you can never use beers without quantifying it, and she was right.

But Marcus argues that actual usage trumps formal rules.  Even if something is not proper it can still be correct.

An analogy–if no drivers observe a stop sign because there is never any traffic on the perpendicular road, are they really doing anything wrong?  Is it the fault of the county for not keeping up with road conditions, or of the drivers for not following the law?  Legally the answer is obvious, but socially it is much less clear. Likewise when grammar does not keep up with widespread usage.

This is a chicken-and-egg argument; should grammar dictate usage or should usage drive grammar?  Really both happen, and the language as a whole remains stable.  Meanwhile we each must decide how much the finer points of English grammar matter to us.

Pi Wen understands Marcus’s point, but she begs to differ. She believes proper grammar should lead usage. Many wrongs do not make a right. EXCEPT, when a writer who knows the rules deliberately breaks them for artistic purposes. As William Safire wrote in the postscript of Blurbosphere, “Good writers are free to break the rules of grammar, but their freedom gains meaning when they know the rules and overrule them only for an artistic or polemical reason.”

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