Disputes in English grammar

Disputes in English grammar
English grammar series
English grammar
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Disputed English grammar denotes disagreement about whether given constructions constitute correct English. Such disagreements are often quite impassioned. Even when there is no disagreement over a given construction English speakers sometimes will express anger on encountering it.[1][2]



The following are articles about various disputed usages in Standard English:

  • The singular they – e.g., "Someone forgot their shoes."
  • What pronoun to use in referring to generic antecedents – e.g., "No one would want this to happen to him / her / him or her / them"
  • Whether to use the subjunctive mood – e.g., "I wish I were/was a better man."
  • Whether to use which instead of that in a restrictive relative clause – e.g., "This is the tree which I saw."
  • Whether to use who as the object of a verb or of a preposition in a relative clause – e.g., "This is the person who I see all the time."

The following are articles about various non-Standard English usages:

  • Double negatives – e.g., "We don't need no education."
  • Certain double modals – e.g., "You might could use it."
  • The use (spoken and written) of the word ain't and other similar constructions.

Factors in disputes

The following circumstances commonly feature in disputes:

No central authority
Unlike some languages, such as French, there is no governing academy for the English language. For this reason, different people often take different works of reference as authoritative. Others argue that, lacking a recognized authority, correctness is defined by common use. That is, once its use is sufficiently prevalent, a certain construction or use becomes "correct."
Older or better-established constructions—or those perceived as such— are considered superior by some (even those constructions which are little used anywhere but in the most formal writing and therefore considered obsolescent by many).
In contrast to tradition, many newer constructions and innovations originate from, or are associated with poorly educated or inexperienced users or users of non-standard varieties. Such uses often are rejected by some speakers as mistakes or corruptions, while embraced by others.
Use by widely respected authors may lend credibility and favor to a particular construction: for instance, Ernest Hemingway is known for beginning sentences with And;[3] however, this is not a uniform rule: for instance, the intentional use of a non-standard style, such as an eye dialect, would not influence the canonical style.
In cases involving the syntax of a specific word, the etymology of the word might be seen as supporting one construction over another. For example, some have objected to the phrase under the circumstances, pointing out the Latin root of the word circumstance suggests a ring or circle enclosing where one stands. See also etymological fallacy.
Logic and consistency
Often speakers will argue that a certain use is inherently more logical than another, or that it is more consistent with other undisputed usages.
Since the purpose of language is communication, as set out in the Gricean maxims, a speaker who finds a given construction to be clearer than another may well consider it to be more correct.
Clarity and consistency
Likewise, a speaker who finds that some construction can produce ambiguities (even if only in some circumstances) may avoid it altogether.
Differences in style and register
Certain styles and registers of speech may be stigmatized by some users. For example, uncommon but "technically correct" uses may be perceived as hypercorrections or may be perceived as pretentious by some, but others may consider the avoidance of the same use a mark of ignorance.

Speakers and writers frequently do not consider it necessary to justify their positions on a particular use, taking it for granted that a given use is correct or incorrect. The position often is complicated by the user's reliance on false ideas about linguistic matters, such as the impression that a particular expression is newer than it really is.[4]

Prescription and description

The prescriptivist and descriptivist approaches often clash: the former prescribes how English should be spoken—a teacher showing students how to write; the latter describes how English is spoken—a sociolinguist studying word use in a population. An extreme prescriptivist might maintain that even if every sentence in current English uses a certain construction, that construction may still be incorrect. Conversely, an extreme descriptivist might maintain that there is no such thing as incorrect use. In practice, however, speakers lie between these two extremes, holding that because English changes with time and is governed in large measure by convention, a construction may be considered correct once it is used by a majority of speakers, but also that a given sentence is incorrect if it violates the conventions of English that apply to its context.

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, and the Standard Written English grammar generally taught in schools around the world will vary only slightly. However the English usage in one country is not always the same as the English usage of another. For example, in addition to the differences in accent, spelling, and vocabulary, there are many points of spoken grammar that differ between and among the various British, American, Australian, and other dialects of the English language in everyday use. 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 educated English-speaker might regard correct 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 British, American, or Indian English is the best form for use.[5][6]

Regional dialects and ethnolects

In contrast to their generally high level of tolerance for the dialects of other English-speaking countries, speakers often express disdain for features of certain regional or ethnic dialects, such as Southern American English's use of y'all, Geordies' use of "yous" as the second person plural personal pronoun, and non-standard forms of "to be" such as "The old dock bes under water most of the year" (Newfoundland English), or "That dock be under water every other week" (African-American Vernacular English).

Such disdain may not be restricted to points of grammar; speakers often criticize regional accents and vocabulary as well.

Arguments related to regional dialects must center on questions of what constitutes Standard English. For example, since fairly divergent dialects from many different countries are accepted widely as Standard English, it is not always clear why certain regional dialects, which may be very similar to their standard counterparts, are not.


Different constructions are acceptable in different registers of English. For example, a given construction often will be seen as too formal or too informal for a given situation.

Speakers do not always distinguish between standard English and the English of formal registers. For example, they might say that a given construction is incorrect for formal writing, but acceptable in ordinary writing or in everyday speech. Whereas linguists often will 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 singular 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


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