Self editing 4 fiction #4 ~ Point of View

The Truth about Grammar

Geoffrey K. Pullum
As many authors are aware, novel writing at its best can sometimes require that one diverts from or circumvents the rules laid out for us by the Grammar Police.

For as a writer, I may want to tell you that my character ‘creaked open an heavy oak door’ (I bet you spotted ‘an heavy’ there); but ‘creaked open’ might upset a purist (it’s complicated, why). And perhaps a run-on sentence flows more smoothly in dialogue now and then. 'Each to their own', I say (tongue in cheek).

Anyway, this article is really to introduce you to the highly regarded Geoffrey K Pullum, co-author of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (2002), which is an up-to-date, comprehensive descriptive grammar of English that you will not find to be copiously over-padded with nit-picking punctuation anecdotes (nor does it have a panda on the cover).

Intuitive writers already know that it is more suitable (and intimate) to say: "The staff were very friendly" rather than apply the collective-term-singular rule and say "The staff was very friendly" and Mr. Pullum tells us why it is legal and apt to do so.

The fact is, the rules of grammar (and the differing styles of punctuation) are contradictory at best. The thesis G.K. Pullum created (below) gives the reader a fascinating insight into the state of the art and its unfortunate marriage to the education system.

The Truth about English Grammar: Rarely Pure and Never Simple

Geoffrey K. Pullum

Linguistics and English Language, University of Edinburgh


Two kinds of dogmatism afflict the study of English grammar. They have more in common than is widely realized. On one side we have tradition-bound fundamentalists who take the rules to be clear and simple regulative principles laid down centuries ago by unquestionable authorities. On the other, we have theoretical linguists, who correctly take grammatical principles as a topic for discovery rather than stipulation but insist that the detail and complexity of grammar must be explainable through the action and interaction of principles that are universal, elegant, and biologically based. I believe both views are in error. Here I focus mostly on the traditionalists. Their system of analysis, essentially unaltered for two hundred years, is assumed in all dictionaries and almost all grammar textbooks today, despite its grave defects. The deepest errors stem from a longstanding confusion of category (word class) with function (grammatical or semantic relation). Attempts to define category in terms of function yield a familiar story: nouns name things, verbs name actions, adjectives name qualities, and so on. All of this is puerile confusion. And in the case of adjectives and adverbs, new evidence reveals that the contrast cannot be reduced to differences in function, because the complementarity view (adjectives modify nouns, adverbs modify non-nouns) is not tenable.

For a lighter read, CLICK HERE to read his salient take on Strunk and White's outdated "Elements of Style" (for [and written by] Dummies)

A word from Stephen Fry on usage versus creativity:

Comment and discussion most welcome.

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  1. Yes is the word!! Language must reach, grow and live fully and to be cherished by the user.

  2. I think I just fell in love with this man!

  3. And yet a young newscaster said, "He was arrested for selling drugs on Sunday morning." Blue laws?

    And Robert Parker in his Spenser novel BAD BUSINESS, "Our guide was a heavy-set woman in a blue dress named Edith." Made me wonder if she named all of her dresses.

  4. Oh wow I so agree.

    My mother tongue (Afrikaans) is going through much worse, at the moment, because the "protectors" of said language are trying to push it into this glass cabinet where everyone can admire its purity and beauty.

    Never mind that any language dies if it stops evolving. No matter how pretty it is.

  5. I would like to see more interesting information.