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What is the best way for non-professionals to have an opinion on questions about grammar that are not settled? I mean anyone who thinks about unsettled or live questions in grammar when there is no consensus (and are not doing new research). An obvious, and I hope pertinent, example is the Oxford comma. Another is whether punctuation is part of grammar. Or (to take a generic example from this site) is word x a y part of speech.

I'm not saying don't (you need an opinion on the Oxford comma really), I simply don't understand how.

I'm asking partly due to a wish to study the science of correct usage (not just ask questions and understand answers on ELU I mean), applied linguistics, so apologies in advance if this is a bad fit for meta.


This section is an aside to show that I am not misunderstanding what I'm asking, or what academics study.

This may be best thought of as a matter of applied linguistics, rather than pure linguistics, in the same way that physics involves applied mathematics, which physicists must work with

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Google says that the difference between descriptive and prescriptive linguistics, even today, is "thin", implying that you can't get away from one and study the other. So I'm interested in learning about both.

I am also interested in both written (with punctuation) and spoken English:

Geoffrey Nunberg challenges a widespread assumption that the linguistic structure of written languages is qualitatively identical to that of spoken language... Analyzed in its own terms, however, punctuation manifests a coherent linguistic subsystem of “text-grammar” that coexists in writing with the system of “lexical grammar” that has been the traditional object of linguistic inquiry.

But less so its application to anything but correct usage.

  • i'm guessing smt like coherence. i rejected this theory because this authority was wrong about this, and this other theory suggesting otherwise was shown to be defective, and... not, then, one's own naive assumptions about grammar? – concerned Apr 23 at 2:15
  • maybe this is a bad fit? have no idea what else the downvote could mean, really. unless it's just obvious how non-professionals have an opinion on grammar? it isn't to me. please do note that i am not being ironic – concerned Apr 23 at 3:25
  • How do you know for sure if the down voter is a non-professional in the first place? They might be a linguist, an English professor, or teacher if English as a foreign language. And if they're not, why aren't they free to express disent? Users will have an opinion on how useful or how well constructed a question is. If a question lacks effort/research or is deemed to be too basic or off topic for the site, it's not unusual for it to be downvoted. – Mari-Lou A Apr 23 at 6:16
  • i'm not asking about any particular vote, at all. i am just asking how to study grammar! @Mari-LouA if i had a problem with how votes were being cast for this reason then i would have raised it on the questions in which i asked about votes – concerned Apr 23 at 6:18
  • I was also commenting why this meta question was downvoted. Probably I was still influenced by your recent post on meta,which I had edited, and the number of your questions which have been put on hold on the main site. – Mari-Lou A Apr 23 at 6:26
  • nothing much has been put on hold for quite some time @Mari-LouA not sure what relevance my other recent meta questions are besides showing that i am trying to learn how to use the site – concerned Apr 23 at 6:27
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    Do you mean: 'What gives non-professionals the right to have an opinion on questions about grammar that are not settled'? – Shoe Apr 23 at 6:39
  • well, no @Shoe more like HOW they form their opinions – concerned Apr 23 at 6:55
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    Thanks for the elucidation. But then, do you mean the non-professionals who answer questions on this site, or do you mean the public at large? I think you might have an interesting question here, but it would help to give an example of one of the unsettled grammar issues you are thinking about. – Shoe Apr 23 at 7:02
  • the "public at large" who study grammar and unsettled questions. an example: the oxford comma? @Shoe i would edit that in, but am concerned in case it's an awful example! – concerned Apr 23 at 7:06
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    Well, one unsettled issue is whether punctuation is part of grammar. I myself do not consider the Oxford comma to be a grammar issue, but others do. Typical unresolved grammar issues on this site involve categorization. For example: Is word x a y part of speech? But your question is now clear to me. – Shoe Apr 23 at 7:14
  • how do those who think whether the OC should be used is part of grammar make their decision that they are deciding something about "grammar"? clearly there is a debate on that issue also. which raises the question: how does anyone make up their mind? @Shoe and if new research follows the same route as the public debate (just with more knowledge and better review processes)? – concerned Apr 23 at 7:22
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    I think a lot of people base their grammatical judgements on what they learn in school. For example, teachers who want their students to avoid strings of sentences starting with and may prohibit the use of and. This engrains itself to the extent that the student comes to believe that such usage is 'wrong'. Also, grammar checkers issue warnings about the passive voice, which some people also interpret as a prohibition. I am looking forward to an answer below that goes into this in more depth than I have time for now. – Shoe Apr 23 at 7:31
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    Now that I have fully understood what you are asking :) I'm going to say that the question, as posed, risks being closed for being either too broad or too opinion based. How native speakers form opinions on what is grammatical and what is correct is a job for a sociolinguist. – Mari-Lou A Apr 23 at 7:39
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    gamed here simply means that I pretended I was the reader and tried to misinterpret what I wrote, based on what I knew about my readers sensitivities and flash points. At that point in my life, I was writing about public policy. – ab2 Apr 23 at 9:52
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With respect to your analogy with philosophy, there are academics and laypeople. Academics have one set of principles (study of the history of philosophy, rigorous argumentation, etc), and laypeople have another much less rigorous set ('I feel like I have free will') and little in between those two.

But for language opinions, there are more categories, and more continuous gradation between them. There are formal academic linguistics, there are professional wordsmiths (people who speak or write for a living), and then there are laypeople who speak or write formally and informally things like emails or texts.

  • academic linguists don't study writing at all. There's very little to say about this; it may be shocking to people who've never considered it but spelling and punctuation are fairly recent man-made inventions and not particularly interesting for linguists. The language opinions here are made by rigorous study of many speakers. They are inherently descriptivist (look it up!) meaning they just try to figure out what the rule is that people actually follow (not what the rule should be). And part of this rule construction process is finding how variable it is (is it a strict rule or are there two patterns that people switch between, or do rich white people say it one way and everyone else another). That is, linguists are totally cool with multiple rules. They still want rules, but they want to know exactly how people are not following a rule (which turns out is another kind of rule).

  • wordsmiths - any academic writers or newspapers or teachers (teaching intermediate writers like highschool). Here everything is fair game for a rule (Oxford comma in the US, no such thing in the UK) so as long as everybody in the community follows the same fashion, everything is cool. As an aside, linguists don't study punctuation but they certainly use it in an academic fashion like these others. The opinions lean towards prescriptivist (look it up!). You must follow the one rule. Different people may still have different rules, but the editors/schoolteachers will have you fired/take off points if you don't follow their rule. Are there books for these? Some institutions have style guides (like is it 'naive' or 'näive'). Mostly, even though these rules are mostly learned in middle and highschool (US), stylistic differences are picked up by following what everybody else does (and you can see that because as a professional you're constantly seeing and judging other's writing).

  • everyday writers - CEOs, someone texting, your mom (not necessarily mutually exclusive here or with the other categories). These kinds of people may have strong language opinions but they will be more chaotic, inchoate, unreliable (those do necessarily overlap but also are distinct). They might be good sources (if done in bulk) for 'does this sound right?' but individuals may not be able to articulate a coherent reason for their answer. A lot of implicit rules are followed here simply by osmosis; a native speaker picks up the nuance without thinking, verbing nouns with abandon, lolling in silence, commaing before 'and's in a list of three or more just because they've seen others do it that way.


You have a point about:

I've never read a complete book of scholarship (and many authors seem to at least try and settle live issues) on grammar.

This brings up what 'grammar' means. Informally, 'grammar' means 'anything language-rule like' which includes punctuation. But most people in the first two categories think of grammar as only word order and getting the tense right, and things like spelling an punctuation are in their own separate category. So to address your point, there are many textbooks on grammar by linguists, none of which will come close to things like the Oxford comma. There are probably textbooks that do discuss punctuation, but they are likely to be addressed to middleschoolers (in the US, ages ~10-14).


So, on ELU we aspire to be like linguists, leaning towards recognizing multiple rule possibilities. Rather than trying to be enforcers of single rules, we try to point out where some rules are merely made up or just style preferences. But as writers on a wiki-like site, we try to hold people to writing standards within reason. And voting is intended to collect the inarticulate but on average informed opinion of everybody. Orthography (spelling and punctuation), while not considered part of the category of grammar, is still very much on-topic.

  • "and little in between those two" are you sure? what about undergraduates, masters students, etc.? if you write "i have free will hah" in an undergraduate essay you fail. they are not academics! – concerned Apr 23 at 13:23
  • i was just thinking that terminologies like '"adjectival prepositional phrase" or "head of a noun phrase" sound like linguistic ones, yet (potentially) means to prescribe incorrect usage. i then generalized that to assume that the science of linguistics is embedded throughout 'grammar' in the "wordsmith" sense – concerned Apr 23 at 14:20
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    re "Are you sure?". Yeah, I'm pretty sure. There's very little middle ground of formality of discourse in philosophy in our culture. It's either academic or it's well-hidden behind discussions of prison rehabilitation (or some other practical concern (free-will is just one example of many I could have chosen)). That 'free-will student' is not in the middle; they're stuck on the non-academic side. – Mitch Apr 23 at 14:27
  • obviously they are that was my point, Mitch. the vast majority of undergraduate students of philosophy don't write like that but are not "academics". – concerned Apr 23 at 14:31
  • re 'grammatical terminology': sure, those terms are available to and used by all three groups (well, maybe just the first two, and could be used to help the third). Linguists use the terms to formulate their rules/make theories and then make predictions from their theories, the wordsmiths may use them to explain not why they chose a rule but what their rule does to the informal users. – Mitch Apr 23 at 14:32
  • re 'your point': I don't understand the direction of your thought then. You may be saying things that by themselves make sense but I just don't get where you're going with any of it at any one time. – Mitch Apr 23 at 14:33
  • i just mean that "the vast majority of undergraduate students of philosophy don't write like that but are not academics" – concerned Apr 23 at 14:34
  • it seems like a strange way to carve up your world (academics / wordsmiths / everyday)... you seem to imply that all prescriptive debate is essentially nonsense. and that just seems wrong. can't some prescriptions be based on a misunderstanding of linguistics? anyway, i have no desire to set out prescriptions, but just want to understand what those are. – concerned Apr 23 at 14:39
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    Every 'carving up' is an arbitrary simplification (that is a rare informal use of philosophy). But you may not have an exposure to the conversation about prescriptivism vs descriptivism, the debate is not nonsense, but many of the 'rules' that are promulgated (no prepositions at the end of a sentence) were just made up on the spot as style choices. But of course they may end up being an actual rule that people tend to follow. – Mitch Apr 23 at 14:50
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    If in the end you want to find out what the most common zombie rules are here's a list with explanations at The Guardian – Mitch Apr 23 at 14:50
  • It's silly to say linguists don't study writing. Most corpus studies are on writing for example. – curiousdannii Apr 28 at 23:13
  • Corpora are collected from spoken and/or written data, carefully balanced in advance. You may be confusing corpus studies with text analysis. In any event, none of these study writing, as a technology, merely the kinds of limited language chunks that writing preserves and allows. That's moderately interesting to linguists, but @Mitch is right that we don't study writing. We spend too much time as it is trying to stop people drooling all over spellings and punctuation, and getting them to pay attention to realities of the sounds and the syntax. – John Lawler Apr 29 at 0:03

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